Burning Issue. . .With a Risk Factor
Last week the United States Senate narrowly defeated a proposed
constitutional amendment, already passed by the House of Representative,
that would have opened the door for laws that make desecration of
the American flag illegal.
The American Legion, the oldest and largest veterans' organization,
had battled for 11 years to protect the flag. Its 2.8 million members
speak for Americans whose graves stretch around the globe, and who
had given all in the service of our flag.
The Legion has been pleading for understanding of, and respect
for, the sensitivities of those who have served, and of their families.
Instead, for a change, we might look at those who are the reason
for such a debate: the few who choose disrespect for, and desecration
of the American flag "to express themselves."
First, the legal stuff. The First Amendment protects free speech.
The Supreme Court, it seems, determined that flag burning was speech.
On what authority? Article Three of the Constitution, establishing
the high court, does not speak of interpreting the law. Only Federalist
No. 78, written by Alexander Hamilton, suggests that function. But
even Hamilton stops short of proposing that justices redefine words
in the dictionary. There must be a concrete wall between words and
deeds, or an emotional outburst containing the phrase "I'll
kill you" would draw the death penalty in several states.
Speech is speech. Words. Spoken. Sounds uttered. Syllables in one,
twos and multiples.
Let the high court interpret whatever is less than clear. The words
of the First Amendment are crystal clear.
But that is only half the story.
While the burning of flags - something people do - is mistaken
for something people say, the opposite appears to apply to certain
other things people say. If someone finds something another person
said offensive, our elected and appointed officials are determined
to classify that as something the offender has done, inflicted upon
another. And since certain deeds are punishable by law, certain
things people say become punishable by law.
Isn't the First Amendment about freedom of speech? Does the Bill
of Rights qualify what a person may and may not say?
Only in the Moscow edition.
Let us summarize: Desecrating the flag, something that offends
American and Americans in general, is the exercise of free speech.
On the other hand, uttering words of dislike about someone may well
be considered an act, a criminal act, a culpable act.
Are we wetting the Constitution on its head?
Are we taking leave of our common sense?
Why is it legal for a person to hate all Americans, and why is
it illegal to hate some Americans?
Of course, most of us would prefer to live in a society where no
one hates anyone. Strangely, we seem to forget that preference when
hatred is directed against our country, those who are first to serve
it, or the very nature of our way of life.
And now to the haters - the America-haters, that is. I respect
their views, we all do, I am sure. Not all of them burn the flag,
in fact most just vent their anger about the Founders and the Founding
of America. They usually engage in this activity during panel discussions,
having arrived at the venue in their climate-controlled automobiles
from their climate-controlled homes, where they had just tucked
in the youngest computer-owner of the family and placed his $200
sneakers neatly at the foot of the bed.
I think we must bend over backward to make certain their rights
are preserved. I also think we must maintain that uniquely American
tradition whereby departing this country requires no official formalities.
In fact, this is the only country with no passport control at the
exit. Let us keep it that way.
Goodness knows, America has its faults. America has made mistakes.
But after all these years of appealing to people's sense of decency,
a collateral approach may be timely. We identify child molesters
when they move into our neighborhood. We could do the same with
those who molest all of us. Let their right to do so be upheld;
our right to treat them with contempt be affirmed and exercised.
There are many ways to be critical. Within one's own family, the
words and actions of judgment are usually different from those directed
at strangers. And, when we are angry at our parents, children or
siblings, we don't burn down the house in which we all live.
Or could that, too, become a way for people to express themselves?