commentary (2006-26)

Where in the world is it headed?

The American Way

by Barry Henderson

One of the gloried memories of my lifetime was the moment in April of 1976 when Chicago Cubs centerfielder Rick Monday grabbed an American flag away from two men who were trying to light it afire in Dodger Stadium. His reflexive rescue of the flag from going up in smoke was so moving that it literally brought me to tears when I saw it.

Monday, now a Dodgers’ broadcaster, was, like me, a proud veteran. He served in the Marine reserves. I was Regular Army for three years, a volunteer who was raised believing that military service was an essential part of my duty to my country. I pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States, and I still do honor and recite that pledge.

I don’t know for sure what I would do if someone tried to burn that flag in front of me. I don’t know whether I’d try to rescue the flag itself or attack those who were wantonly attempting to destroy it. I know it is the right of anyone to burn that flag as an expression of dissent or distrust of the government. But it is not something I would witness idly. I couldn’t. The flag is a symbol of all of our freedoms and responsibilities as Americans. Still, I would risk arrest and prosecution for interfering with the free speech right of a flag-burner. My response is predictable to me because the flag represents that freedom of speech, if that makes sense.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that right in 1989, in a case brought against a Texas law prohibiting flag desecration. I applauded the court’s ruling, which came on a narrow, 5-4 decision. Defending the flag is a personal matter, not a legislative or constitutional question, and the court left it at that with some noble wording attached:

“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 majority opinion, delivered by Mr. Justice William Brennan, concluded in part by saying:

“We are tempted to say, in fact, that the flag’s deservedly cherished place in our community will be strengthened, not weakened, by our holding today. Our decision is a reaffirmation of the principles of freedom and inclusiveness that the flag best reflects, and of the conviction that our toleration of criticism…is a sign and source of our strength.”

Now we are confronted, as a free people, with a proposed constitutional amendment that has been kicking around since the Supreme Court’s enlightened ruling. The amendment would protect the flag from desecration. It has lost repeatedly in Congress in the past, most recently last year in the Senate. But this year’s attempt, which could be decided this week—by the time you read this, in fact—may advance the flag amendment. It would doubtless be ratified, as legislatures in all 50 states, have resolved in its favor.

They may mean well, I suppose, but the supporters of constitutional flag protection are also relying on a public to back them in their gesture. Flag-waving over liberty is what it amounts to. Do these ostensibly patriotic Americans have any idea what this sort of naked political shenanigan means to their liberty and ours?

I don’t think so. It would be another stake driven into the body of individual rights that were sanctified by our Constitution for more than 200 years but are eroding right now under the banner of collective security. I can’t abide that erosion quietly.

I fly the Stars & Stripes in a window decal on the car that I drive. I’ve done so over the years, and I’ve never sported any other stickers or signs on my vehicles. There’s no accompanying message with my flag, and none has been needed. I’m a loyal American. The flag says that, and that’s what it’s intended to show.

I never wanted to burn my flag, our flag, and I wouldn’t do it now. Couldn’t do it. But if this amendment is added to the Constitution, I know I’ll want to burn the flag I love. There’ll be a brief emotional urge that I’ll dispel.

The amendment’s current surge in popularity seems symbolic to me of an American populace that is willing to trade away freedoms for whatever seems exigent or expedient at any given moment. Enough of those formerly protected freedoms abridged and I’ll lose a lot of the pride in country that has sustained me all my life and directed much of its course. What good will the American flag and all that it has represented be to us if the Land of the Free goes by the board in a wave of citizen-sanctioned official repression, denying what we once considered our fundamental rights?

I won’t burn a flag, but there may come a point when I won’t leap to its defense if some aggrieved soul is defiling it in protest.