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Burning Emotions
The Real Threats to the Flag

As the U.S. Senate contributed mightily to global warming while debating a constitutional amendment to ban flag-desecration last week, the Citizens Flag Alliance (“representing 147 organizations and over 20 million members”) made this startling announcement: Flag-desecration incidents are up 33 percent this year. That is, there’s been four incidents reported so far this year, compared with three by June last year.

And those four incidents? Early the morning of June 22 on a residential Brooklyn street, louts thought to be teens just out of school set on fire a few flags in people’s yards. Two weeks earlier, a drunken man in West Haven, Conn., desecrated a flag while chugging beer and taunting passers-by on a bike path. On May 30, vandals stole a flag from a VFW Post in Mineville, N.Y., and burned it. And on May 13 in a small New Hampshire town, 13 flags hanging from a VFW building were sliced into ribbons. Each of these, except the drunker man’s desecration (he could be prosecuted for drinking beer in public, but not messing with a flag) are misdemeanors punishable by perfectly acceptable laws: You can’t go around destroying other people’s yard property, whether it’s a flag or a pink flamingo. But are three instances of stupid vandalism and one drunken hic-up a crisis warranting the mobilization of the U.S. Senate and the push for the first constitutional amendment in 14 years?

That’s not to deny the importance of respecting the flag or the visceral emotions it provokes among those who see it flying — including me: The flag isn’t just another piece of cloth anymore than a picture of my young children is just another piece of glossy paper. Representations of what we love mean something deep and true no matter how irrational the rage we might feel when these mere objects, usually cheap and replaceable by the dozen, are harmed. Who in his right mind wouldn’t feel physically sick by the sight of an organized book-burning, even if the books are a bunch of Harlequins or the latest pulp from Ann Coulter? Still: Recognizing the authenticity of one’s emotions and beliefs doesn’t mean that the recognition deserves special constitutional treatment. Sometimes it may well mean that those emotions and beliefs are blinding us, maybe conveniently, to what matters a lot more.

When I heard about the Citizens Flag Alliance peddling that sensational stat about a 33 percent increase in flag desecrations, it occurred to me that while three or four or a dozen flags get burned every year in the 50 states, three children die every day in the United States due to neglect or abuse. That’s not just desecration, which has never killed anybody. It’s murder, or something close to it. No one is lining up in congressional hearings to press for a constitutional amendment banning lousy parenting. Not that anyone should. But if it’s visceral emotions and protecting what means most to us as a nation that we’re responding to, a campaign to ban lousy parenting — silly as it would be — would make a whole lot more sense than these embarrassing campaigns to ban flag desecration (there’s been four such congressional attempts since 1989, when the Supreme Court ruled flag-desecration protected by the First Amendment).

The stat about abusive parenting could be considered just as sensational as the ones flag-wavers throw around. You might even say that it has nothing to do with the issue at hand. We’re dealing with national pride, the meaning of America, with what, as Sen. Arlen Specter put it, “veterans fought for, what they sustained wounds for, what they sustained loss of limbs for and what they sustained loss of life for.”

In that case, here’s what flag-wavers perhaps should be a little more concerned about — this Independence Day more than most. The American flag in most of the rest of the world once provoked envy, reassurance, hope. It represented power, to be sure, but a kind of power more benevolent than vainglorious or worse — dangerous. How winds change. The latest survey by the Pew Research Center has favorable opinion of America in the rest of the world at its worst ever. In Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan and Turkey, it ranges between 12 and 30 percent, although it once was as high as 75 percent in those countries on al-Qaeda’s recruiting tours. In Great Britain, France, Germany and Spain, where approval ranged between 50 and 83 percent six years ago, it’s now 23 percent in Spain, 37 percent in Germany, 39 percent in France (they love us!) and just 56 percent in Britain.

In five brief years, disdain has replaced admiration. “Old Glory lost today,” Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, said when the flag amendment failed. He’s right, but only in so far as Old Glory is losing its once-revered meaning a little more every day in the rest of the world — with the Senate’s apparent blessing, and the indifference of many Americans proudly, blindly waving it today. Happy July 4.

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