American Flag Burning Protests: Oxymoron or Just Good Old Free Expression?

After seeing someone on the local news say that the proposed amendment to ban flag burning in the U. S. failed to pass the Senate by one vote (true) and then proceeded to extrapolate on how “close” the vote was with “scarcely over 50%” voting against the amendment (absolutely insane “reporting”), I decided to go with this story among all the others out there. (I decided this after nearly choking on my coffee and throwing a napkin toward the t.v.–it was all I had handy that wouldn’t actually damage the television.)

Okay, it’s one thing for Joe and Joanne Schmoe to be confused about the requirement that such amendments pass by two-thirds (that’s 2/3) of the vote, but for a newsperson on a news program to get that wrong is just appalling. Maybe instead of worrying about Fluff and Pedro being at Fenway tonight, the local media needs to worry about the sorry state of education in this country.

The actual Senate vote (the House had already passed the amendment, that’s how it ended up in the Senate) was indeed close, and by close I mean that it didn’t quite have the number of votes needed to pass (shy one): 66-34, with fourteen of those 66 votes for approval of the amendment to ban flag burning coming from Democrats (including, surprisingly, California’s Diane Feinstein).

We’ve heard all the arguments on this one, and it’s tough to decide what is “right” (at least for me) because of the meaning with which we as a patriotic country imbue our flag. It angers me to see our flag burned by our own citizens. Perhaps oddly, I don’t really mind seeing the crazies around the world do it for a few of reasons: 1.) I sincerely doubt that they would dare to do so on our soil, even though they legally can, 2.) I know that they probably can’t burn their own flags in their own countries, so the irony is not lost on me, and 3.) at the end of the day, it’s the impotent act of impotent people.

But it does bug me when our own citizens do it, and of course that is WHY they do it, to make a statement–even if they are too ignorant to understand the full implication of their statement. For example, burning the flag to protest war (one of the favorites of the flag burners) is a bassackwards way to make an anti-war statement, right? I mean, let’s see, the flag in part represents hard-won freedoms, freedoms won during war and defended during war, freedoms in other words that the flag burners wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the very war/s they protest. Full blown irony. And they don’t even get it; in fact, they will actually say that they have the right to do this, that our troops (who many anti-war people support) are fighting for their right to do exactly what they are doing to protest the troops fighting in a war to protect their right to . . . well, you see how it comes back around. Strange. Almost makes you feel sorry for them.

Another wonderfully illogical argument offered up by the flag burners is the fact (and it is a fact) that the proper way to dispose of a (tattered, worn) United States flag is to burn it. According to the actual legislation on flag disposal, The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning (Title 4, Chap 1, Sec 8, item k). So let’s take a look at this point of law: one of the conditions for disposal by burning is that the flag no longer be a “fitting emblem of display,” in other words, in good condition. The televised flag burnings I’ve seen take place on U. S. soil have been of flags that are in good condition (how else can we recognize them as U. S. flags?). A second condition is that it be “destroyed in a dignified way,” and there really is nothing dignified about a collection of shouting, screaming, red faced, and sweating morons putting Bic lighters to Old Glory and then hopping around as they try to avoid being burned by the burning object they are holding in their bare hands (before, that is, unceremoniously dumping it into a metal trash bin). But maybe that’s just me, maybe someone else sees that as dignified. And according to the quoted legislation, both of these terms must be met, not one, not the other, both. 

Another odd pronouncement by the flag burners and flag burning advocates is an extension of the “make a statement” idea in that it is a protected First Amendment right. Okay, so let’s look at that. If the proper way to destroy a tattered flag is the dignified burning of the object, and the protesters are not meeting this requirement (though they argue in the same breath that they are, want it both ways), they must be making a political statement, and we allow that in our country. I’m on board with that. But we also have laws on the books that effectively curtail freedom of expression, freedom of speech. For example, I can’t go into a crowded movie theater and yell “Fire!”, I can’t go to the airport and say that I have a bomb (even if I don’t), and I can’t verbally threaten anyone or perform any act of “hate speech.” I also can’t threaten, verbally or in writing, the life of the President of the United States. I can’t go into a public school and say the Lord’s Prayer in front of a class of third graders (or twelfth graders, for that matter), and I can’t say “Merry Christmas” in a government building. I’m not sure, but I think that I would also be arrested for saying the Pledge of Allegiance in a public school, certainly if I used the term “under God.” If I were privy to state secrets, I could not tell them to an agent of a foreign government (treason). So there are all manner of things we can’t say here in the good ole U. S. of A. A blanket and “true” freedom of speech does not exist, never did.

I don’t like to see a flag burned, and I wouldn’t vote against an amendment banning flag desecration should it ever come to the states for ratification, but it’s not a huge problem for me; if someone wants to do that, let them (until or if it ever becomes illegal, of course). At the end of the day, all it shows is that they are so enthusiastic about our country’s freedoms that they wish to exercise them in this (I think ignorant and ironic) display. It hurts me to see it, and it hurts me to see it in a time of war, when our troops need support, our protests and flag burning demoralize OUR guys and pump up the “bad guys.” We know this because North Vietnamese leaders and generals told us so after we lost the Vietnam war; they hung on BECAUSE they saw what was happening in protest in the U. S., and they knew we wouldn’t have the heart or balls to stay in and fight the good fight (this is, of course, a paraphrase, I don’t recall reading anywhere the terms “heart and balls” or “fight the good fight”).


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