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Protecting the Flag

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Earlier this week, the effort to amend the Constitution to protect the American flag from desecration failed by a single vote. I do realize, for those who may doubt it, that this, along with the Marriage Amendment proposal, is an attempt by Republicans to garner support from voters for something that they want. And I’m quite amused that some Democrats voted with them, possibly in an attempt to render the GOP’s potential ammunition in November into duds.

But there’s still the issue about protecting the flag that needs to be considered. While I wish there could be a law that prohibited the destruction or defacing of the American flag, I am glad that there isn’t one.

In some ways, it’s like working in a job that you hate, for a company you despise or for a boss you distrust: how long must you stay there before someone has to smack you upside the head and say, “If you’re so miserable at that job, start sending out resumes and go somewhere else!” Believe me, I know what that’s like: I stayed in a job at which I was less than happy for many years too long. But when I reached a point at which I was convinced that the company was headed in a direction that was contrary to what I was looking for, I left.

Those people who hate this country so much that they’d destroy one of its most basic symbols are a lot like those mindless workers who just keep showing up. I wonder why they’d keep living here if they’re that dissatisfied. Could it be that they’ve looked at a globe and discovered that while this country is nowhere near perfect, it’s still a hell of a lot better than many of the others on the planet? Quite possibly.

On the other hand, there are those protestors who love the country as much as, if not more than, those who are quick to pull their own Stars and Stripes out of mothballs this time of year. They just feel that taking the action of burning a piece of fabric others hold so dear might be just enough of an attention getter for their own agendas. Just like those youths a while back who went on a rampage through some northwestern city destroying everything they could find in the name of some trade agreement.

The problem is, when you’re protesting something and you employ a shock tactic to get your point on the table, the point often slides right off the table. The general public, unfortunately, does not say, “Well, gee, let’s take a deep breath and see what’s got this fine young man so upset: he must have a point that he’s desperate for me to listen to.” Instead, the general public says something more along the lines of, “Look at this spoiled little jerk! What the hell’s the matter with him? He’s lucky to live in a country where burning the flag doesn’t get him shot by the State!” And whatever cause the flag burner was trying to raise awareness of is lost amid the emotional reactions of anger over the act itself.

When those protestors were destroying cars and smashing the windows and doors of local businesses and generally behaving like drunken fools, I was wondering if they knew anything about foreign trade. Maybe they did. Or, maybe they saw an opportunity to wreak havoc under the guise of fighting for a cause, whether they knew what the cause was about or not, and just joined the mob. But their “cause” was lost in the mayhem, and if they were really interested in getting that message out, this couldn’t be the result they’d have been happy about.

If you burn the flag just to get me to hear what you have to say, I stop listening. If you destroy other people’s property to influence me to act the way you want me to, I will ignore your message and focus on the lawbreaking.

That’s the thing folks at many protests fail to consider.

Say what you want to say and do it legally, reasonably, rationally, and honestly. You’re much more likely to get me to hear you that way. And I can’t imagine that I’m the only one who feels that way, particularly when you consider how many folks my age and older grew up in a time when pledging allegiance to the flag (and always more importantly) to the country for which it stands, was a basic part of our lives that didn’t seem like some personal attack on our individual beliefs.

It’s not about pretending that everything is rosy; it’s about respecting other people’s feelings.

But remember: I work in the media. So the First Amendment is something my livelihood depends upon in some ways. I hate to see someone desecrate the flag. But I cannot agree that we should have a Constitutional amendment to prevent it, because once we have it, what’s the next piece of speech that will no longer be free in a country that holds freedom of speech so dear? Too much is at stake for such an amendment to be created.

We have to have the right to free speech, but we should remember that speaking freely can sometimes make the message go unheard.

One Comment

  • James says:

    You make some excellent points. I think protesters who burn the flag – or a dumpster in the middle of the street as happened at the WTO meeting in Seattle – have totally diluted their message by committing such a sensational stunt. Of course, often the message is simply that one CAN burn the flag. Which brings me to my second point: is it not illegal in many jurisdictions to set fire to something as large and combustable as a flag on a public sidewalk or street? A giant, burning flag seems more a risk to public safety than a bottle rocket.

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