Desecrating the Flag

Nothing demonstrates the differences in Americans’ worldviews more vividly than disagreements over periodic efforts to ban flag “desecration.”


Many officeholders who are currently promoting this effort are, of course, doing so cynically, in a frantic effort to change the national dialogue and divert attention from a government that looks more dysfunctional every day. But many people support a constitutional amendment out of a sincere belief that such a move would demonstrate respect for the country and recognize the sacrifices so many of our soldiers have made over the years.


Many, if not most, of the amendment’s supporters readily acknowledge that flag-burnings are rare (according to the numbers I’ve seen, there have been fewer than 45 documented cases in the last half-century). Some of them will even concede that the passage of such an amendment is likely to spur more such acts of defiance rather than reducing that already low number. But putting a halt to some epidemic of civil disrespect is not the point; supporters don’t want to control social behavior, they want to send a “patriotic message.”


Those of us who look at this proposal with dismay are not—as the Ann Coulters of the world insist—traitors, terrorists or anti-American provocateurs. Actually, we believe we are the real patriots. We just define patriotism differently.


The United States Constitution and Bill of Rights gave America the best, most workable, most enlightened governing structure yet devised. Certainly, it is the system most respectful of individual dignity and autonomy. The flag—the cloth emblem that legend tells us was devised by Betsy Ross—is a physical symbol of that system. People honor the flag by respecting the Constitution, and they desecrate it when they elevate the piece of cloth over the principles and values that make it worthy of respect.


When we approve government actions inconsistent with our most basic governing premises, we are desecrating the flag.


When those we elect to high office routinely ignore the foundations of republican government—separation of powers, accountability, the insistence that—as John Adams put it—we are “a government of laws, not men,” they are desecrating the flag.


When our lawmakers intrude in areas that are simply no business of the government, whether it’s Congress insisting that fourteen state court decisions have been wrong, and Terry Schaivo’s feeding tube cannot be disconnected, or South Dakota lawmakers deciding that it is their place to criminalize a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy, or a Pennsylvania school board deciding that their religion should be taught in lieu of science in public school classrooms, those lawmakers are desecrating the flag.


A President who unilaterally designates people as “enemy combatants” and imprisons them indefinitely without permitting review of that designation by the courts, or who issues “signing statements” declaring that he has no obligation to comply with acts of Congress he doesn’t like, is desecrating the flag.


I have a radical suggestion: let’s honor the flag by insisting that our elected officials respect the Constitution it symbolizes.