What does it mean when a country cannot tell the difference between freedom’s symbol and freedom’s substance? What does it mean when a country no longer knows the difference between the material and the ideal?
Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in 1989 that desecrating or burning the American flag was political expression protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment, whole legions of politicians have beat their chests in patriotic fervor. Is nationalism the last refuge of the scoundrel? No, it’s the first resort of those elected to the House of Representatives, who this month voted 286-130 in favor of a constitutional amendment prohibiting “the physical desecration of the flag of the United States,” which now moves to a vote on the floor of the U.S. Senate sometime after July 4.
Ignoring our nation’s larger problems for the quick and easy hustle of a lustful tryst with simple-minded patriotism, some congressmen arrogantly invoked the names of the Sept. 11 terrorist-attack victims in their crusade for Old Glory. But in a post-Sept. 11 America, that sort of tasteless exploitation is par for the course. And now our own Sen. Orrin Hatch, the flag-desecration amendment’s biggest sponsor and therefore biggest fan, will have yet another chance to shake and strut his “patriotism” for his most fanatic pet project on the Senate floor. Hatch and his ilk will no doubt state that they’re doing this for our war veterans, even if nearly 1.7 million American vets have no access to government hospitals, let alone health insurance. They’ll no doubt say the civic pride of future generations will be damaged unless this execrable amendment passes, despite the fact that civic pride is at such a seemingly low ebb that we’ve made the Pledge of Allegiance mandatory in most intermediate and high schools. “You don’t respect your country?! We’ll teach you respect, by God. We will require it!”
At this point in the editorial you no doubt expect me to trot out the usual pronouncement that burning the U.S. flag is an offensive action best left ignored than outraged about. That it is. But that’s hardly the point.
The point is that if our nation takes the dangerous next step of amending the true bulwark of our freedom, the U.S. Constitution, with a law giving government the power to punish those who would desecrate the mere symbol of our freedom, we have embarked on a slippery slope from which it will be most difficult to turn back. Grant government the power to punish the expression of political speech, however offensive, and how long will it be until government has the power to punish political speech itself? Whose criteria will we use when measuring its “offensivenessâ€? Right now, it’s conservative Republicans who see their political ideas gaining supremacy. They might view the potential abuses of this amendment with very different eyes when, and if, the Democrats or some other party gains the upper hand. Left wing or right, no political ideology holds a monopoly on abuse of power. That is why the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights must remain neutral and untampered with. That is why Sen. Hatch’s flag-desecration amendment is such a very bad idea.
There was a time, not long ago, when Americans knew their country was strong enough to withstand the most vehement and offensive of criticisms'be it the burning of our flag or the attacks of Sept. 11. We knew the strength of any nation resides in the freedom of its citizens, not the totalitarian might of the government. Gradually, we are turning away from this vital belief. We seem amazingly unafraid or unaware that the intolerance of our own government is chipping away at the freedom of individual conscience. You’ve got to hand it to the genius who gave the USA Patriot Act its title. If you support it, you’re a patriot. If you don’t, you’re a traitor. So it is that “patriots” support the government’s right to know what books you’ve purchased or borrowed from the library. A “patriot” likes and supports a government that detains people without due process, bars entry of foreign journalists, or collects information on anti-war protestors.
Should this amendment to the Constitution pass, we will be perilously close to forming a society that moves in lockstep, with little room for disagreement. The dynamic, open forums of discussion and dissent that nourish our democracy will calcify and atrophy into a congealed mass of imposed agreement. It may be a safe society. But it will be false, and built on bad faith.
The politicians who support this amendment know full well that totalitarian nations such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the People’s Republic of China and Cuba punish dissidents who dare deface national flags. Intoxicated by the belief that our nationalism is somehow better and more tractable than anyone else’s, they don’t care. They’ll tell you our enlisted men and women fight for the glory of our flag. That is a bald-faced lie. Our enlisted men and women swear an oath to “protect the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, both foreign and domestic.” Our Founding Fathers knew the Constitution, of which the First Amendment is a part, could just as easily be attacked from inside as out.
What does it mean when a country cannot tell the difference between freedom’s symbol and freedom’s substance? What does it mean when a country no longer knows the difference between the material and the ideal? We may soon find out.