By GRAEME ZIELINSKI
#Go to the Citizens Flag Alliance's Web site and you will find a rogues'
gallery listing when, where, how and by whom Old Glory has been defiled.
In the eyes of the well-financed alliance, the defilers listed have a
fundamental disrespect for the symbol of the United States and, by
association, the United States itself.
Perhaps these people did hate America. Perhaps their ideas and reasons were
un-American. And perhaps, because of beliefs that roused them to action, they
deserve to be imprisoned. This is what a constitutional amendment proposed by
the alliance and its allies would allow.
The amendment, many years in the making, has passed the House of
Representatives by almost a 3-1 ratio, and the Republican leadership in the
Senate promises to hold an election-year vote to, in the words of Sen. Orrin
Hatch, R-Utah, "restore legal protection to our national symbol."
Doing this is important, said Mary Jon Ludy, the Ohio state winner of the flag
alliance's high school essay contest, because "if you want to criticize our
government, you should find some other way to do it."
But I believe it is not for government to decide how we should criticize it,
and I come to the debate not as one who feels a great need to criticize
government, nor as one who hates America. As a matter of fact, I love America.
It's what I was taught, what I believe.
That is what I said some years ago when I burned a flag.
It was on a University of Wisconsin campus, long after the tumult during the
1960s when flag burnings were rife. There was no such tumult in 1995, however,
and the only thing on fire was the flag I held at the end of a stick.
I was in a near-empty square that used to be overflowing with protesters. But
on this winter afternoon, the burning was witnessed by a few bystanders.
I had no over-arching philosophy or ennobling ideas; I did not seek to
petition the government for a redress of grievances. I went to the square with
some lighter fluid and a flag seeking only to protest the effort to make my
But that is a foundational idea in itself, since how we protest is entwined
with how we think. How I chose to act would be enough to land me in jail, if
the world were as the flag alliance would have it. But I am confident that
this world won't come to be because what I love most about America is its
commitment to freedom and not mere idols.
You wouldn't think such enormous issues were at stake when I burned the flag.
The few witnesses stared blankly, some with the pursed lips of disapproval.
The fire extinguished itself, anti-climactically, and one young man asked for
the flag's remains, presumably to be put on display on his dorm wall along
with his Fugazi rock band poster.
For my part, I had the warmth of satisfaction, knowing that I exercised a
freedom offensive to most people (myself included in most cases), but
nonetheless protected in our great country.
Those who wrap themselves in the flag to prohibit scenes such as this, claim
that an "anti-desecration" law is needed -- not because there are a rash of
burnings that threaten to eliminate the flag (there aren't), but because the
flag is a unifying symbol and its destruction augments societal fracture.
But I'd rather be wrapped in a burning flag because, even if some
sensibilities are singed and some professional patriots outraged, the national
character can more than absorb the fire of insults and vigorous debate.
Forget about the limited appeal to cops and prosecutors of a law against
flag-burning: Their hands already are full with real dangers to society.
Forget about the religious dictums against a flag law: Mosaic teachings,
ostensibly followed by Jews and Christians, forbid treating anything but God
And forget the inconsistency of the flag "protectors" when dealing with
American iconography: If the honor of our veterans is paramount, why not focus
efforts on outlawing the display of the Confederate flag, since that, more
than anything, stands for forces dangerous and inimical to the republic?
While I agree with all these arguments against the flag amendment, they pale
in comparison with the argument animated by our core commitment to freedom of
Opponents of flag burning perform Arabesques of logic when trying to
distinguish flag-burning from speech.
"We have laws against standing on a corner on a soap box naked," said Dan
Wheeler, president of the alliance. Wheeler also cited other obscenity laws
and prohibition of certain types of speech for children; of speech at certain
times; of vandalism to national monuments.
But each instance is outlawed for reasons that have nothing to do with the
political speech our country has husbanded.
Holding signs in a legislative chamber, for example, is not permitted because
it would disrupt the body's operations; offensive materials are kept from
children because of children's innocence; national monuments are protected
from vandalism because they are singular and, besides, are the property of the
And as for Mr. Wheeler standing naked on a soap box, his actions would be
deemed indecent by a standard that has more to do with sexuality than with
political speech. And sexuality always has been treated differently.
Which brings us to the flag I saw fit to set afire. It should be protected,
the argument then goes, because. ...
Well, let's hear the words of the flag alliance's allies.
"It's a sacred symbol," said Kortney Beth Sherbine, the South Carolina
winner of the flag alliance's essay contest.
Said Jodi Luechtefeld, the Illinois winner: "It stands for all the people who
fought for the freedom of our country."
And Noelle Meyer, the Wisconsin winner, said,"The American flag represents
who we are."
If the flag is all these things, then it must be considered an avatar of our
country, including its government, policies and culture. And if it is this,
its destruction must be considered a profound political statement. But this is
exactly the type of criticism that our system has been built to withstand.
The causes typically associated with flag-burning, carefully noted by the
Madame Defarges of the flag alliance, are liberal ones.
But however loathsome, the people the flag alliance lists in its web site each
had a legitimate complaint with the government, one that is protected and
deserves the symbolic power of burning a flag: One person, we learn, was
decrying racism; another didn't like war; still another was upset over
Japanese internment during World War II.
The flag alliance says that America allows so many other ways to vent spleen.
As Sherbine, the South Carolina essay contest winner, said, "You can express
yourself, but be smart about it."
But this should be determined by that person, and that person alone, without
the intervention of an inquisitor of the state. There already are laws that
punish people if their actions, even if taken in the name of free speech,
injure others. Merely offending certain individuals' notions about government
and patriotism is not enough to set into motion the heavy hand of government.
/Graeme Zielinski is a Chicago Tribune staff writer./