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Americans wear hearts on their plates

States are issuing special license plates to commemorate Sept. 11.

Slogans on license plates have traditionally boasted state virtues with hyperbolic pride. Maine, for instance, has the audacity to suggest it offers "the way life should be." New Hampshire is the rebellious "live free or die." Georgia is more contemplative and ephemeral. It's just "on my mind."

But after Sept. 11, a number of states are creating specialty license plates that tout the attributes of country rather than individual state.

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In particular, they are celebrating patriotism, national unity, and a host of other American values - often with the added exclamation point of a tiny flag.

The move reflects the more nationalistic fervor across the land in the wake of the terrorist attacks. It also shows how much the technology of making license plates has changed. For years, turning out a plate with a new moniker was a painstaking process, often taking two months. Computer technology has turned that into a one-to-two-day job.

Texas and Virginia, for instance, each offer drivers more than 180 different styles. Bumpers are becoming fortune cookies, each with a different slogan.

In the latest emphasis on patriotism on plates, states are trying to ensure that Americans don't forget the victims of 9/11 or its call to action.

"Flags have a lot of meanings, but one of them is to represent the lost members of the group," says Carolyn Marvin, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. "A flag on a license plate is a way of constantly renewing our involvement in Sept. 11 and preventing it from falling off."

Michigan was the first state to approve the new plates and issue them. A waving flag over a mitten map of Michigan is accompanied by the words "Proud to Be American." Other states, including Hawaii and New Hampshire, are pressing ahead with plates of Old Glory carrying tag lines such as "United We Stand"

The monikers are intended to do more than evoke a spirit of unity. A variety of 9/11-related charitable causes will benefit from the surcharge normally associated with acquiring the plates, typically $25 to $40. In Michigan, the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army are designated beneficiaries. In Florida, funds will go to a nonprofit that supports a US State Department program offering rewards for terrorist information. A portion of the license proceeds will also go to state coffers.

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To a certain extent, license plates have long been a special venue for patriotic display. For instance, the first specialty plate in Kentucky was one that honored disabled veterans, issued in 1970. Some say this patriotic vigor is uniquely American.

"In this country, where you have people from all over the world, where everyone is a hyphenated American, our identity is not natural, so to speak, it's constructed. And we have to constantly reinvent it," says Alan Wolfe, director of the Center for Religion in American Public Life at Boston College.

"We're not used to acting in concert with one another," says Karal Ann Marling, a professor of pop culture at the University of Minnesota. "But in times of trouble that's exactly what we want to do, and these license plates are a way of showing we're connected to the group."


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