Editor’s Note: This article was published in the The Stamford Advocate at the start of the 2003 war with Iraq. Some readers viewed it as an anti-war statement; however, at the time, I saw the termination of Saddam Hussein’s regime as a necessary evil. Nonetheless, I was unable to generate any real passion about the war itself. (As someone who was less than eager to serve in the armed forces during the Vietnam era, I felt it would be hypocritical to write with enthusiasm about sending young men to die in a foreign adventure when I had been unwilling to make such a sacrifice during my own youth.) So, I wrote instead about free speech and the First Amendment, subjects I’d covered before in a different context.
Few things warm my heart more than seeing the American flag burned in public. Now, before you torch this newspaper in a fit of righteous outrage, let me clarify that just a little.
Since 9/11, Americans have become more passionate about patriotism and the symbols that represent our country. With typical opportunism, the politicians have responded to these feelings with a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning. To open the 108th Congress on January 7, bipartisan sponsors introduced House Joint Resolution 4, which was followed by a similar bill in the Senate.
Americans burn the flag about as often as they burn their draft cards, so declaring war on flag desecration is the solution to a problem that doesn’t actually exist. Like the hoopla over the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, flag-burning initiatives give politicians a “mom and apple pie” issue to posture about, rather than deal with real problems.
A constitutional amendment is being proposed, instead of a law, because the Supreme Court has already declared such legislation unconstitutional. In 1989, the Court threw out a Texas statute banning flag desecration, ruling it violated First Amendment free-speech protections. However, for those looking to prune the Bill of Rights just a little, the flag is a sacred icon that trumps such considerations. Like spitting on the Koran in Iran, flag burning is considered too offensive to merit constitutional protections.
But this is a slippery slope. What’s next, a ban on song parodies of “God Bless America” … censorship of political cartoons that caricature Dick Cheney? If this seems silly, consider that, in a First Amendment Center survey, 40 percent of those polled favored government restrictions on comedy routines. As Jay Leno is still allowed to say, “Thank God for the other 60 percent of us.”
The real problem with Joint Resolution 4 is obvious to any former Boy Scout: The proper way to dispose of a worn-out or damaged American flag is to burn it; hence, burning is not intrinsically a show of disrespect. What is being proscribed is the attitude underlying the act, i.e., the instigating intent.
Such legislation won’t punish an activity, but the exercise of dissent. And such expressions — however unpopular or distasteful — are precisely the sort of political speech the First Amendment was written to safeguard. I like to think the right to do obnoxious things was one of the freedoms my father went off to World War II to protect.
Traveling outside the U.S. always makes me feel a little smug about my homeland. When I see people burn an American flag on foreign soil, my patriotic revulsion is mitigated by the suspicion that their behavior is born of envy. I choose to believe such anti-Americanism grows out of the protesters’ frustration they weren’t lucky enough to be born in Connecticut.
However, when I see an American torch a flag at home, I feel proud to live in a country where some moron can do this without fear of government reprisal. If you want to burn the Stars and Stripes in Riyadh, Saudi officials will probably supply the gasoline, but try that with the Saudi flag and see how long your hand stays attached to your wrist.
To protest U.S. government policies, a Manhattanville College basketball player, Toni Smith, refused to face the flag during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This drew support from the college’s president, who called agreement or disagreement with her actions irrelevant, because “her right of expression is fundamental.” At the same time, she was roundly denounced on right-wing radio, as well as Republican TV networks, such as Fox News.
Whether Ms. Smith’s actions were courageous, obnoxious, both or neither, they made me proud to be an American. Despite such spirited opposition as the waving of hundreds of small flags by irate fans and thunderous chants of “Leave our country,” Smith refused to forgo her pre-game ritual of dissent. One sportswriter suggested banishing her to the locker room during the national anthem, because her behavior “disgraces the flag,” but how much harm did one young athlete do?
When Tommie Smith and John Carlos “disgraced” the flag with their black power salute at the 1968 Olympics, or when NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand during the playing of the National Anthem, democracy was not seriously threatened. Nor is irreparable damage done to the republic by the misguided morsels of political wit and wisdom that sometimes spew from the mouths of celebrities like Danny Glover or Sean Penn.
How seriously does anyone take the opinions of a college basketball player? Like most adolescents, Ms. Smith is likely to change her politics as often as her hair style by the time she’s 30, but if the young lady was stubborn enough to get her views of the moment aired just like some air-headed celebrity, was that such a bad thing? Doesn’t an insignificant small-college athlete have as much right to her 15 minutes of fame as some submoronic radio talk show host?
At a Manhattanville game in February, Vietnam veteran Jerry Kiley ran out onto the court to wave an American flag in Ms. Smith’s face. It’s inspiring that he cared enough about his country to do so, and it’s comforting he wasn’t swinging a scimitar, as he might’ve been in some Arabic-speaking nations.
I’m also glad Mr. Kiley wasn’t waving a court order in her face. Congress may be full of pandering toadies who want to see disrespect for the flag punished by prosecutors wielding prison sentences, but I’m proud that the desire for homeland security hasn’t made us so insecure that such a thing can happen here … at least, not yet.
A flag-burning amendment is a bad idea. So were the trespassing charges filed by the Crossgates Mall against a father and son for wearing shirts bearing slogans like “Give Peace a Chance.” And what overdose of political correctness made Superintendent Evan Pitkoff discipline Newtown (Connecticut) High School students for burning a French flag to protest France’s opposition to war with Iraq? In fairness, Mr. Pitkoff’s actions may have had more to do with fire safety than free speech; however, the French tricolor would probably sell well if advertised as kindling at Home Depot.
Although I prefer to see the French flag burned, I don’t feel dishonored when Americans disrespect Old Glory. I’m thankful I live in a country infested with lively political discourse, pointless marches, silly chanting, stupid protests, flag-waving veterans, rude comedians and people shouting in each others’ faces. Even in wartime, I prefer my raucous homeland to a nation of drones cheerleading their government like a herd of sheep.
And if a flag or two gets singed along the way, so be it — it’s the price we pay for our freedom.
Click here to read a related article on First Amendment issues.
Click here to read an article dealing with a very different flag-related issue.
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