Freedom of expression in America was preserved by the slimmest of margins yesterday when the US Senate failed to pass an amendment to the US Consitution that would prohibit desecration of the American flag. I condemn both Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr, two chickenhawk Senators who voted against the Constitution in favor of election-year patriotic pandering. Six months ago, I wrote a column for the Chapel Hill News on the subject. It seems fitting to repost it today.
Burned for freedom
When I entered the Naval Academy in 1968, I swore to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I could never have imagined that I would find myself some 37 years later protesting an imperial US presidency by burning an American flag.
But that’s what exactly what I did earlier this month. In a sad and private ceremony in my own backyard, with my wife and daughter standing by, I sprinkled an American flag with gasoline, lit a match, and watched the stars and stripes ignite in bright orange flames before collapsing in a pile of ashes.
The flag was stained and moth-eaten, ready for retirement by any practical standard. With only 48 stars, the spangled banner flew over my father-in-law’s farm in Maryland long before Alaska joined the Union in 1959.
While housecleaning over Christmas vacation, I came across this tattered Old Glory at the bottom of a drawer. I unfolded it carefully, breathing in the trials and traumas that have rocked our country throughout my lifetime. I contemplated the sad state of our nation today – our criminal war of aggression in Iraq, our environmental miscalculations, the assaults on privacy we endure under the corrupt Bush regime.
And then I decided to burn that flag.
In case you’re not familiar with American flag etiquette, “dignified burning” is the appropriate method for disposing of flags that have been damaged or soiled. But our brief family ceremony was more than a way to retire a battered piece of cloth. It was also a way to mourn the loss of our nation’s integrity.
To help make sense of the solemn event, my wife quietly declared the flag burned in honor of the highest ideals of the United States of America. Our 15-year-old daughter hoped out loud that her generation would be lucky enough to inherit a country worth having. And I watched in silence as smoke rose around me, thinking of the countless men and women dying overseas for the lies of George Bush.
According to the US Code, “whoever knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any flag of the United States shall be fined or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.” Though the Supreme Court invalidated this portion of the Code in 1989, it remains on the books, a puzzling paradox in a democracy where the right of free speech is among our highest personal liberties. And almost every year since, the US House of Representatives has approved a Constitutional amendment that would outlaw flag desecration. Thank goodness the Senate has not joined in those misguided efforts.
Did I violate the US Code when I set fire to our worn-out flag? Certainly not if my intention was simply to “retire” the flag. But the truth is, my intention was far more complex, colored by a mixture of worry, anger and fear. I worry about how far our nation has fallen in the eyes of the world. I am angry that we the people have twice elected an incompetent fool to lead our country. And I fear the steady erosion of our basic rights as United States citizens.
To decide if I broke the law, you would have to understand how deeply I admire the nation for which our flag stands. You would have to understand my unwavering commitment to restoring our democracy. You would have to understand that this particular flag was burned for freedom.