The proposed, so-called Flag Protection Amendment states, “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.” This is yet another effort to misuse a popular and emotional issue to change the Constitution of the United States in a negative way in order to gain political advantage. It had been planned to bring this up again for a third vote in the Senate just before the November elections, but apparently the right wing decided that the anti-gay and anti-women’s rights issues would be sufficient to assure its continued dominance in the Congress. This amendment will be brought up again, and it again needs to be defeated.
First of all, this amendment is simply not needed. How many of us have even seen someone burning a flag recently? Occasional incidents, which most of us probably only see on television, do not warrant a change in our form of government. The Constitution should never be changed because of some short-lived outrage.
If the Constitution is amended to require the flag to be shown respect, then the flag will no longer have that respect. If we pass a law to require someone to show patriotism and he then obeys, he is not being patriotic: he is obeying orders. The flag will be a tool of the government and will no longer be the symbol of anything, certainly not of freedom.
If we ask why anyone would ever want to burn the flag in public, we might be surprised to learn that it is almost always for some patriotic reason. Burning the flag will draw attention to activities that most people need to know about but seem to be unaware of. I call it the “sledge hammer” approach. It is an extreme gesture and is used only when seemingly everything else has failed. It is used reluctantly, but brazenly, to expose injustice when no one else seems to care. It is intended to make people aware of activities that do not reflect what this country is supposed to stand for. Right now we all have a right to learn of the reason for the protest and to decide whether we agree or disagree, and I do not want us to lose that right.
Also, do we need or want the government dictating what each of us can do with his or her own flag? If someone is burning a flag, whose flag is it? Does it belong to that person? A crime has been committed if it belongs to someone else and if permission has not been granted. And that is the way it should remain! We all believe that we can do whatever we want with our own property as long as it does no harm to others. We love to say, “This is a free country.” And I hope we will always be able to say that!
There are only three real reasons I can think of that this amendment would ever be brought to a vote. One is that opponents of the Bill of Rights see this as an easy opportunity to place for the first time an exception to the freedom of speech into the Constitution. Dating all the way back to Alexander Hamilton and his Federalist Party (a forerunner of today’s Republican Party), conservative parties in the U.S. have never been fond of the Bill of Rights. Once a precedent is established, it will be easier for them to abridge more of our rights next time. Also, they will eventually want to exclude whatever protesters substitute for the flag: maybe even parchment copies of the original Constitution and of the Bill of Rights.
The second reason is to exploit the flag for political gain. Candidates will use it to get votes by claiming to be patriotic if they support the amendment and accuse any of their opponents who voted against it as being un-American. Can you imagine the strength of character and the political courage it will take for legislators to vote against the Flag Protection Amendment? They will be trying to protect the Constitution and, specifically, the Bill of Rights, but they know the Big Lie will be used against them. They also know that, unfortunately, it will probably work! Even those who should know better will probably vote for this amendment in order to stay in office, and who could blame them? However, they may recall the question asked by Jesus (as quoted by Matthew): “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world (replace with reelection) and lose his own soul?”
The third reason for trying to get this amendment passed is equally troubling: If the party in power wants to hide what it is doing, it may feel that preventing flag burning incidents should be a major goal. The current Executive Branch in Washington will be virtually void of moderate voices in the upcoming second term and will be almost entirely dominated by Neo-cons. The Neo-cons’ beliefs that perpetual warfare is good, that civil liberties are a nuisance to government, and that governments should be able to lie to the public will continue to be implemented into policies. If so, to make the American people aware of what is going on, individuals or groups may finally begin to demonstrate in protest. Civil disobedience might include flag burnings, and the administration will not appreciate that kind of attention being brought to its activities. The administration may use this amendment to silence opposition and falsely appear to be patriotic at the same time!
Take note of the words of Albert Camus: “I should be able to love my country and still love justice.” Remember that the most effective protection for the U. S. flag is the one we have always relied on: the good conduct of our government and the good conduct in public activities of our elected and appointed officials. If this is the case, the flag will never be shamed and will never need any amendment to protect it.
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published December 8, 2004,
in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.