Copyright © 2004 Henrietta W. Hay
Burning the Flag in the Election
There are so many issues involved in this year's Presidential election, that it is hard to know which one to worry about most. When we look at the current administration's accomplishments, we have the terribly vital issue of the tragic war in Iraq and the increasing danger of terrorism at home, the millions of Americans without health care, the job crisis, an almost insurmountable deficit, and attempts at suppression of free speech, just to name a few.
But one that is so broad that it touches them all of them is the hassle over flag burning. Sometime before their adjournment on Oct. 8, the U. S. Senate plans to lay aside the important business of the day in order to, as a Denver Post editorial said, "play a cynical game of 'gotcha.'"
The Republicans are hoping that bringing this issue to the floor of the Senate at this time will force John Kerry to take an unpopular stand just before the election, and they can call him unpatriotic. Ah, politics. Be sure to wash your hands before eating.
The proposed constitutional amendment reads, "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States." This amendment has already been voted on five times by the House and twice by the Senate. The Supreme Court has ruled twice that flag burning is symbolic speech and is protected by the First Amendment. This amendment is injurious to one of the very freedoms the flag symbolizes: free speech. It empowers Congress to engage in thought control.
The flag desecration amendment is a solution in search of a problem .
The expressive act, burning a flag, is exceedingly rare. Professor Robert Justin Goldstein documented approximately 45 reported incidents of flag burning in the over 200 years between 1777 when the flag was adopted, and 1989, when Congress first passed, and the Supreme Court rejected, the Flag Protection Act. About half of these occurred during the Vietnam War.
But -- it is a highly emotional issue which many Americans relate directly to patriotism. They believe that If you wave the flag, you are a patriot. But waving a flag or tying one on your car or wearing one on the seat of your pants does not make one a patriot. There is a distinct difference between real and forced patriotism. Flag burning is offensive because it is political.
A flag is a symbol, a piece of colored fabric with deep meaning, but still a symbol. The reality is America -- you and me, the land we live on "from sea to shining sea," the constitution which has kept us free for over 200 years, the government, the economic system. The reality is a huge, diverse, deeply divided, raucous, mixed-up bunch of people who have the freedom to speak and worship as they choose, even though others may disagree.
Certainly nobody wants to see the flag burned. But far more dangerous is the threat to the constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech, even protest speech, when used as a political maneuver. Freedom cannot survive if exceptions to the First Amendment are made when someone in power disagrees with an expression.
The flag is a symbol. Long may she wave. Our real job is to be sure that our rights as Americans to disagree are not destroyed. If they are, she won't wave much longer.