O say, can you see?

Over the years, I have written at length to numerous people (and even persuaded some of them, really!) arguing against the so-called “flag desecration amendment” that keeps rearing its head in Congress. This is a proposed Constitutional amendment that would make it a crime to burn the American flag (e.g., in protest) or mistreat it in various other ways that constitute “desecration.”

Never mind that the very word desecration (deriving from the same root as sacred) implies a religious aspect that the flag does not deserve — there are all kinds of reasons why amending the Constitution for this purpose is a very bad idea, beginning with the fact that there is no flag-desecration emergency in this country, and we don’t amend the Constitution on a whim, without a clear and present need. (The only real need served by this amendment whenever it comes up is the need of some senators to appear patriotic — or to make others look unpatriotic.)

Unfortunately, one of my senators, Dianne Feinstein, supports this amendment whenever it comes up. Last year it came dangerously close to passing the Senate. Here’s an exchange we had on the subject.

I wrote:

Dear Senator Feinstein,

Our poor Constitution can’t take much more abuse.

You must oppose the amendment to permit laws banning flag “desecration.” America has no flag-desecration crisis, and even if it did, the right answer would be to rally the flag-wavers in opposition to the flag-burners.

Here’s the slippery slope we’re creating:

Burning the flag: illegal
Smearing mud on the flag: illegal
Smearing mud on a 49-star flag: illegal?
Smearing mud on a picture of the Statue of Liberty: illegal?
Smearing mud on a picture of the President: illegal?
Speaking ill of the President: illegal?

I won’t quote her entire response, which was quite long. (Of course it was a form letter.) A small excerpt:

Unfortunately, we will have to disagree about this issue. I strongly believe that the American flag holds a unique position in our society as the most important and universally recognized symbol that unites us as a nation.

Here was my reply.

Thank you for your response, Senator. I would like to leave you with two further thoughts on this subject:

  • You movingly described the impression made on your 12-year-old self by the famous Iwo Jima photograph of the flag being raised. The lump in your throat came not from the law, and not from the flag, but from American ideals of courage and achievement. Do you expect that a legal obligation to respect the flag will make the same impression on a 12 year old today?
  • While the flag may be the only official symbol of the nation, for all practical purposes it is roughly co-equal with a pantheon of other images: the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the White House, John Hancock’s signature, etc. Do we extend to those images the same Constitutional protections? If not, expect to see the Statue of Liberty burned in effigy where once you might have seen a flag burn — is that an improvement? Or if we do, how is this not a slippery slope?

If we were suffering through a rash of flag burnings, and if they were dangerously destabilizing to society somehow, I might feel differently. But we’re not, and as it is, I submit that it’s more likely for the very sight of a burning American flag to move a 12 year old to patriotic fervor than anything the legislature is likely to do.

For every American who burns his or her flag there are thousands who will wave theirs proudly. This country will remain great exactly as long as we are confident in that fact.

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