When you think of one issue that desperately requires this nation's immediate attention, one thing that cries for all of us to unite in passing a constitutional amendment about, what comes to mind? Gay rights? Abortion? Patient's medical rights? How about flag burning? Should we pass an amendment that would prevent people from burning the flag of the United States?
The House of Representatives seems to think so. They voted overwhelmingly for an amendment that would allow Congress to pass laws banning the desecration of the American flag. I do not believe it possible to overstress how bad an idea such an amendment is.
Passing the amendment isn't bad politics, of course. Almost everybody loves the flag, including myself. I'm saddened when people burn it, and I'm certain most of you are too. However, I'm also intelligent enough to realize that the burning of the flag offers no danger to the country.
A key reason for this is that flag burning is pretty rare. You don't see an American flag wreathed in flames every time you take a walk down the street. So even if every flag burning were a wound on the nation, America would not be seriously injured.
But burning the flag, at least in any instance where U.S. law applies, does not injure the United States. Flag burning by U.S. citizens is an incredibly ironic gesture. Those who would commit the act are at once using and rejecting the protection of the government that it represents. The fact that they rely on the government they so publicly revile in order to make the gesture makes their protest impotent and meaningless, except to people who stupidly allow the shocking sight to blind their intellect.
Furthermore, flag burning can never hurt the republic. The flag is only a thing, a symbol representing an ideal. While one may tear the symbol, burn it, or unravel it, one can do nothing to the ideal through the symbol. Burning the flag has always been a politically fatal move--a resistance to whatever movement would do such a thing can appear rapidly to work against the perpetrators. Though a person may defeat the flag itself and destroy its physical existence, he will find himself quickly crushed by the forces that the flag represents--people united by freedom.
Unless, of course, burning the flag is justified. I would not have blamed black people working in the Civil Rights movement for burning a flag. Such an act can signal that grave injustice is being done, and serve as a call for free people to aid their fellow men. In these situations, flag burning is justified, and perhaps even necessary.
What can hurt the country, though, is the removal of our basic freedoms, and that is what this amendment does. Such an amendment is completely contrary to the ideals and the actions of our founding fathers. Burning the flag is, at the very least, an act of protest against the government. Such protest is protected by the First Amendment, specifically because it was the kind of protest not allowed by the British. Unpopular as flag burning may be, it is speech and should be protected as such. Banning this act is no less a crime against freedom than banning political periodicals or public demonstrations against the government.
But beyond the fact that this amendment limits freedom for no reason, the new law itself is a poor conception. While the meaning of "ban" is evident, what might be meant by the words "flag" or "desecration"? Would any representation of the flag count? If not, then I might burn a wooden painting or sculpture of it. The effect on national discourse would be the same as if I had burned the real thing, so any law not covering representations would be ineffective.
But as you chow down on barbecue this Fourth of July weekend, consider this: is covering a representation of the flag with ketchup any less of a desecration than burning it? Look around at all the U.S. flag napkins, plates, T-shirts, and so on. Add it up and you have flag "desecration" everywhere.
How about an animated image of a burning flag on a web page? How about a picture of a flag on a web page that features racist rhetoric? Or perhaps gay rights rhetoric? People could make cases for any of these being desecration of the flag. How about other flags? The amendment does not even specify what flag should be protected. This ambiguity could easily be exploited. This vaguely worded amendment gives Congress the right to outlaw a potentially huge amount of speech.
The flag itself is nothing. It can be burned a hundred or a thousand times, and freedom will endure. But freedom will not endure when the people of a nation willingly surrender their rights in order to protect something that is meaningless when those rights are not fully enjoyed. The people who truly desecrate the flag are those who react only to the image, and forget the republic and the great freedom for which it stands.
(Sparky Clarkson is Opinion Editor for the Cavalier Daily.)