Flag Flap Flies in the Face of Freedom

Scoring another victory in their ongoing fight to expand the size of government, the Republicans in the House of Representatives pushed through a constitutional amendment to ban desecration of the American flag. Freedom-loving Americans are now hoping that the Senate will start slicing and dicing and kill this bill in a grandiose fashion worthy of a Quentin Tarantino film.

There is little room for doubt that 9/11 played a major role in the renewed push for a flag-burning amendment. Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), self-appointed representative of terrorist victims, said, "Ask the men and women who stood on top of the Trade Center . Ask them and they will tell you: 'Pass this amendment.'"

This comes as no surprise. Any politician knows that the best way to garner support for an expansion of government power is to play the patriotism card. Studies (well, at least those studies I assume exist that cover this subject) have shown that people are less inclined to speak out against something if doing so makes them look like unpatriotic sheep to the rest of the flock.

I have no reason to question Rep. Cunningham's love for his country, but his statement has to be one of the dumbest ever uttered by a politician--within the last few days. Is he suggesting that a flag-burning amendment will give the victims of 9/11 some sort of cosmic justice and grant their souls the eternal rest they have so far been denied? Does he think that had this amendment to the Constitution been ratified prior to 9/11, those twin towers might still be standing today? And if not, would we have had the satisfaction of prosecuting those responsible for desecrating every flag that happened to be damaged in the attacks? Clearly, Cunningham's statement betrays the idiotic reasoning behind this proposed amendment.

What's even scarier is that the Democrats are now beginning to sound like small-government conservatives. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said, "If the flag needs protection at all, it needs protection from members of Congress who value the symbol more than the freedoms that the flag represents." I hate it when I have to side with a liberal Democrat, but he's right. This is just another example of symbolism over substance.

Symbolism, however, is important in post-9/11 America . Terrorism, as portrayed by the Bush administration, is a nebulous, shadowy, elusive evil that lurks behind every closed door, around every corner and down every dark alleyway. Confronted with a frightening, faceless enemy, the American people need something tangible to cling to--a kind of security blanket--and the flag is as good a symbol as any.

You will no doubt hear arguments from "conservatives" who will say that this flag-burning amendment is necessary. Sure, the country somehow managed to survive over 200 years without such an amendment to its Constitution, but perhaps the time has come to really start getting serious about our internationally recognized symbol of freedom.

But when you get right down to it, the American flag is just that: a symbol. And even though the word "desecration" is typically reserved for the act of defacing a sacred object, there is nothing holy or sacred about the American flag; it is a symbol of the state.

Some may insist that this amendment honors that for which so many men fought and died, but I hesitate to believe that a single American soldier ever gave his life in defense of the flag. If any of them had, then they died in vain for a symbol, a multi-colored piece of cloth. What diminishes the sacrifices made by our nation's veterans is allowing politicians to assign special protection to a glorified dish towel while they continue their mission to desecrate the rest of the Constitution.

The exact wording of the amendment in question reads as follows: "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States ." Seeing as how the proponents of this amendment aren't offering any further explanation, I would like to address four main concerns of mine.

First of all, the amendment fails to define "desecration." Must the desecration be deliberate, or can it be accidental? Are there degrees of desecration? Will the failure to properly illuminate the flag at night be considered a federal crime?

Secondly, there is no definition of "flag." Are we talking about the actual star-spangled, red-white-and-blue banners flying over government buildings? Would privately owned flags be included? If so, what does that do to property rights in this country? And what about representations of the flag on bandanas, scarves, boxer shorts, t-shirts, jackets and countless other items of clothing? Will certain uses of the flag be taboo? For example, could a Republican-controlled Congress rule that the waving of miniature flags at the Democratic National Convention constitutes a form of desecration?

Thirdly, we have no way of knowing this amendment's economic impact. What will it cost to investigate and prosecute incidents of flag desecration? Would yet another federal agency have to be created to crack down on the apparently vast, organized criminal network of flag-burners? Will this turn into yet another black hole for taxpayer dollars?

Finally, this amendment does nothing but expand the power of the federal government. With such vague wording, it would be left to Congress to arbitrarily define--and redefine--its scope. Washington bureaucrats would essentially have absolute dictatorial power over this issue. They will be constantly tinkering with the meaning of the amendment through various pieces of legislation, and that will most assuredly give rise to an endless stream of costly court battles.

It may seem silly to think that an 85-year-old veteran, who raises Old Glory in his front lawn and forgets to take it down during inclement weather, resulting in a torn, faded flag, could be considered guilty of a federal offense. But with ratification of this new amendment, what once seemed absurd suddenly appears within the realm of possibility and becomes an issue that Congress must confront when defining what it means to physically desecrate the flag.

Here's something else that may help put the flag-burning amendment into perspective. When the Chinese government assumed control of Hong Kong in 1997, one of the first laws it passed was a ban on the defacing of the national flag. Do we really want to emulate China ? Why can't we leave such laws to oppressive communist regimes and keep this the Land of the (Relatively) Free?

I realize that in these uncertain times people want to do something to show they can be good little patriots, but this amendment has nothing to do with patriotism. In fact, it goes against everything the flag is supposed to represent.

And if supporters of this ridiculous amendment think there's a flag-burning problem now, wait until it becomes illegal. Man-made global warming would suddenly become a reality.

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Lee Shelton's picture
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Lee R. Shelton IV has been commenting on politics from a libertarian perspective since the 2000 presidential election. Residing in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, he currently covers local issues at Examiner.com.