The easiest way to get attention these days is to be obnoxious, and there’s no better example than watching ne’er-do-wells desecrate the American flag as if flipping the bird to this country that so generously indulges their repulsive presence.
That’s what we do because that’s who we are, abiding by foundational principles so much greater than whatever causes these rabble-rousers to see as justification for behaving like jerks.
This is nothing new.
Back in 1995, during a three-hour debate in Congress over a proposed amendment to prohibit desecration of the flag, James Traficant, an Ohio Democrat, seethed as he excoriated those who “defecate and urinate on Old Glory to make a political statement,” causing Wayne Gilchrest, his Republican colleague from Maryland, to nonetheless point out, “Freedom means the freedom to be stupid.”
That’s a large understanding, succinctly captured by Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling that flag-burning as a political statement was permitted by the First Amendment.
“It is poignant but fundamental,” Kennedy declared, “that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.”
What could be more inherently American than allowing dissidents to be heard, even when their antics are reprehensible?
Such begrudging tolerance was never better exemplified than it was by the ACLU in 1978 when it defended the right of a Nazi organization to march through the streets of Skokie, a heavily Jewish Chicago suburb.
Most Americans understand there are times we have a responsibility not to do the things we have a right to do, but that assumes we’re all connected by threads of common decency.
Flag-burners, like Nazi demonstrators, are a barren lot, void of such decency, and yet we provide them with seats at the table of democracy, even while holding our noses.
Good for us, reaffirming principles matter more than personalities.
Down in Abington, in response to a flag-burning flap two decades ago, a poster was displayed at the VFW post, showing the Stars and Stripes above this text:
“I am the flag of the United States. I am the trenches in France, Belgium, Anzio, Normandy, Omaha Beach, Guadalcanal and Korea. I am the jungles of Vietnam, the sands of Desert Storm, the streets of Bosnia.
“I am the names of those who never came back. When you salute me, you are saluting them. I am the symbol of America, the home of the proud, the brave and the free.”
It is unconscionable that unrepentant slugs interpret “free” as meaning they’re free to torch that symbol.
But Justice Kennedy had it right: Our flag protects them, too.
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