Monday, October 13, 2014

Some Thoughts about flag-burning

There was about a 1-second clip on the news the other day, after an allegedly armed teenager was killed by a police officer, that showed an American Flag being set alight by a group of angry people.  I had a problem with that.
The only time a flag should be burned is "when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display".  This is what the US Flag Code prescribes.  When a flag has aged, faded, been worn out by a long life of proudly flying above government buildings, schools, even private homes, it becomes time to lay it to rest.  The preferable means of destruction is burning.

Before President Obama was elected for a second term, some Syrian rebels who had aligned themselves with Al-Qaeda, burned an American flag.  They did it to enrage us.  And it worked.
There've been disgraceful flag incidents in this country too, long before Ferguson MO erupted.  In 1943 some Jehovah's Witnesses refused to salute the US flag in school -- they were found to be exercising free speech.  In 1969, some Vietnam War protesters burned a US flag in New York -- they too were found to be exercising free speech.  (They burned their draft cards too.)
There've been numerous lawsuits against people allegedly desecrating the US flag in various ways.  But the US Supreme Court in numerous decisions, including two in 1989 and 1990, has shown it considers burning the American Flag something that is protected under the Constitution.  It's free speech.  As is corporate campaign spending.  Some of that enrages people too.  But as the Court has said, "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."
The society of Ferguson MO apparently did not find burning the flag offensive or disagreeable, even though most of us did.
But why did they do it?  According to USA Today, one protester said, "It's not our flag.  Our children are being killed in the street. This flag doesn't cover black or brown people."
It's hard for me to get inside that person's head, as I'm sure it is for most Americans.  I served in Viet Nam, put my life on the line, to defend that flag and what it stands for -- for me, that is.  Does it stand for the same things for all folks?  Ask around, and not just your friends.  Ask strangers too.  Ask Native Americans.  Ask black people.  Ask Muslims, Catholics, evangelicals, Hindus, young people, old people, rich people, poor people, smart people, simple people.  See if there's a pattern.
I remember the 60s when students were burning flags in protest of the war in Viet Nam.  And when I came back from Viet Nam, I didn't advertise where I'd been.  No one welcomed me back.  Except my family.  Yet, years later, when I heard on NPR a story about a flag burning, I wrote a letter to them.
May 30, 1990
Dear All Things Considered:
The story yesterday on the Louisiana flag desecration/assault law left the bad taste of words like "red neck" and "racist" in my mouth.  Yet I, too, get emotionally wrenched when I see an issue of the American flag being burned, ripped or trodden upon.  I thought much about this dichotomous reaction.  Finally, I think I've resolved it.
Old Glory is like a soldier.  Of my contemporaries, a vast number, myself among them, went to Viet Nam.  Of those, a great number were maimed: physically, psychologically, or both.  A smaller percentage give their lives.
Now, it's the same with flags.  The overwhelming majority fly their entire lives on flagpoles until they wear out and are given decent burials.  Some fall into the hands of unpatriotic, or merely unconscientious, citizens who neglect them.  They become dirty and wrinkled.  Some are called upon to give their lives in free speech demonstrations.
I believe the issues of the Stars and Stripes that "die" in this way should be honored just as our fallen servicemen are honored.  Perhaps the remains of flags thus burned could be buried in a National Cemetery.  Maybe there could be a monument erected: the "Tomb of the Unknown Flag".
The perpetrators, the flag-burners, should be ignored.  Just ignored.  If we do anything else to them, we cause the flags they burn to have died in vain.  Those flags should be honored as fallen heroes who gave their lives in defense of Freedom!
Very, very sincerely,
Randolph B. Jones