Putting a match to an American flag is perfectly legal. In 1976 the 94th Congress sanctioned burning the flag as the preferable manner of disposing it when no longer fit for public display. Presumably, this is a more honorable send-off than throwing it in the trash or using it to scrub floors or wash the car.
Yet today’s Congress is on the verge of passing a constitutional amendment officials are calling the flag-burning amendment. The House of Representatives has already voted for it. The final hurdle is the Senate. Illinois Representative Henry Hyde, sharing his contemporaries ignorance of their 1976 predecessors, says the flag is sacred and, "just as tombstones are not for toppling...flags are not for burning."
The proposed amendment actually does not say anything about burning. It instead reads: "Congress shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."
Those who dispute this proposal generally focus on whether it weakens the First Amendment rights to free speech. Constitutional purists, such as ACLU representatives, tend to ignore sacred dimensions of a country’s flag.
That is an unfortunate oversight, for the desecration of the American flag is one of the ubiquitous facts of life. Around Memorial Day or Independence Day numerous merchants flash the flag when peddling their goods and wares. Walk through the mall or along a boardwalk and notice how many tee shirts or patches on jeans illustrate a replica of the stars and stripes. Watch a ballgame and see how many uniforms have a flag replica sewed on the arm. Stores now sell lounge chairs draped completely in a vinyl flag, waiting to be stained with the sweat and suntan lotion of summer vacationers.
All, according to the 1976 Congress, are examples of desecration. Only those serving in the military, police and fire departments are allowed to wear flag patches. It is otherwise disrespectful to use the flag as part of your clothing. And Section 4 of the code is explicit: "The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever." Commercial sacrilege apparently escapes the hearts of the amendment’s supporters.
Why should we worry about desecrating a piece of white cloth dyed with blue and red colors? A symbol or icon is more than its material composition. A photograph, for example, is more than photons graphed onto paper; it shows a friend or relative. When people are forced to flee their homes, invariably they pact some photos of loved ones. To rip apart a photo, toss it in the trash—even burn it—is to say that love has already died.
A flag bears similar meaning but on a much larger and historic scale. To burn it is not always an expression of defilement; it can be an accusation that someone has betrayed or killed the core principles it represents. To pledge allegiance to a flag, on the other hand, is not only a ritual that begins the school day or official ceremony. It makes public certain beliefs that citizens supposedly have in common.
Most of the controversies about the Pledge to the United States flag address the inclusion of God. More significantly, one also pledges to "liberty and justice for all." Curiously, today’s Congress ignores this point. To the extent that Republicans and Democrats are not bothered that the United States has the largest prison population in the world, or that they voted for tax cuts which reinforce the disparities among its citizenry, they conceal their disrespect with flagging patriotism.
As the epigraph from Ambrose Bierce implies, this latest stab at patriotism is little more than the grandstanding of politicians wanting their names etched sufficiently in the memories of voters to help them pull or push the right options for the next election.
If successful, legislators might diminish the 115 incidents of flag burning that have reportedly occurred since 1994—about one a month. But they will have done nothing about the flag desecration that happens every day.
Alexander E. Hooke, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy at Villa Julie College.
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This story was published on September 16, 2003.