Recently in a conversation about the flag burning issue, a friend of mine remarked, “Well, if you don’t support this amendment, you’re just giving people permission to be unpatriotic.” I replied, as gently as I could, “They already have that right. That’s the whole point of living in a democracy. Flag burning may infuriate you and me, but you can’t criminalize unpatriotic behavior in America.”
I believe that the flag is the most powerful symbol we share as a unified American culture (in spite of our increasing fragmentation). Unless we are now willing to concede that the flag’s symbolic value has become so incredibly weakened that it requires a constitutional amendment to protect its power, it’s pointless to expect Congress to vote for such a proposition.
And I do not believe the flag has lost its power as a national symbol. I offer into evidence the following story:
A few years ago a close friend and teaching colleague was assisting in our high school auditorium one spring morning during 11th grade state testing. A student in the back row near the door where she was stationed remained seated for the Pledge of Allegiance. She motioned for him to stand and he shook his head in refusal. Even though she had no authority to do so (he wasn’t violating any rules), she removed him from the auditorium and walked him outside. “Why won’t you stand for the flag pledge?” she asked. He replied that it didn’t mean anything to him and besides he didn’t have to. And so she said, “Let me tell you how that makes me feel.” In a voice tight with tears, she told him the story of the father she never knew who was killed in action in World War II—a promising young cartoonist who wrote letters home to her mother with professional quality illustrations sprinkled through the text—letters that are now part of a Smithsonian collection. She told him that the flag he was refusing to respect was the symbol of all she had lost and all that her father had sacrificed for love of his country. By the time she was finished, they were both crying. The next morning of testing, she took her place again at the back of the auditorium, and when it was time for the pledge to the flag, the young man looked at her, nodded his head ever so slightly, and rose to his feet.
The flag doesn’t require constitutional protection. What a mockery that would be! This national emblem needs no such defense. The flag transcends both its use and yes, its abuse. Its message and meaning exist on an inviolate plane—sacred and untouchable.
In the end, it’s not a political issue; it’s personal and cultural. What do you suppose my friend would do if she witnessed someone burning an American flag? I think she would walk up to that person and say, firmly and respectfully, “Let me tell you how that makes me feel.”
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