The American flag has been so many things to so many people over the course of its history. It has been a symbol to rally troops, to instill esprit de corps in the military, and for many throughout the world it has represented freedom and hope. I would add that for Americans it also symbolizes our original national motto, E pluribus Unum---out of many, one.
Many states and the federal government have passed flag desecration laws that criminalize burning or otherwise desecrating it. This came to a head in 1984 when Gregory Lee Johnson protested Ronald Reagan’s policies at the Republican National Convention in Dallas where he burned the flag to symbolize his anger. Johnson was convicted under a Texas law that made his conduct illegal, but in 1989 the Supreme Court overturned it. Writing the majority opinion was liberal justice William Brennan. Conservative justice Antonin Scalia joined Brennan in the decision. The court held that flag burning was a form of symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment.
This controversy, which includes “disrespecting” the flag, continues. Recently an Olympic athlete turned her back on the flag when the National Anthem was played. Conservatives let loose with the usual anger about being un-American, about disqualifying her from participation in the games, and questioning her patriotism.
To be clear, what she did is not something I would do or even consider doing. If the committee that governs athletes has a requirement to show deference to the flag, they can deal with it based on those rules, although I question how forced participation in any belief has any real meaning---a different subject.
I bring up the behavior of this athlete and that of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, among many examples, of how the flag can stir up a lot of emotion on both sides. On January 6, 2021 thousands of protesters showed up to support Donald Trump in Washington in hopes that the congress would not certify Joe Biden’s election victory. American flags were visible throughout the crowds.
We all know what happened next, i.e. hundreds of protesters breeched police lines and forcefully entered the Capitol. The vandalism alone cost millions of dollars.
Some of these “true Americans” tried to find Vice president Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claiming they had committed treason and should be executed. A gallows was constructed outside of the building for that purpose, although we will never know with any certainty if the insurrectionists intended to follow through and actually hang Pence and Pelosi.
Some 140 police officers were injured, many seriously, as they tried to hold the line against these rioters---all who called themselves patriots. And some of those injured officers were assaulted with the front end of the staffs holding the American flag which they used as spears.
Richard Barnett, one of the insurrectionists whose face got national publicity as he sat in Pelosi’s chair displaying his American flag, considers himself a true patriot, a real American. Didn’t matter that he committed criminal trespass, that he broke the law. What mattered is that he considered himself the judge of who is and who isn’t a patriot and a “real” American. For those who want to help pay his legal fees, for $100 he will give you a signed autographed photo of his criminal trespass.
Yet, if there are conservatives who value the American flag as much as they claim, who denounce the likes of Kaepernick, I never heard one decry the contempt for the flag at the Capitol on January 6th. Fox commentator Tucker Carlson had no problem accusing the FBI with being complicit in the events of January 6th despite not having a scintilla of evidence, but his silence was deafening concerning the abuse and desecration of the flag by his fellow patriots.
As I said at the outset, the flag represents a lot of things to a lot of people. To those Blacks who protested segregation and Jim Crow laws who burned the flag, they spoke volumes in their act by noting how the flag did not represent them, that they couldn’t vote, couldn’t serve in the legislature that wrote the laws excluding them, that they were cut out of the Constitutional protections and rights afforded “all” citizens, that they were not “created equal” despite the words in the Declaration of Independence.
For me, the flag has its own story. My father and his parents would see the American flag flying in this country for the first time when their ship sailed into New York harbor, when they passed the Statue of Liberty and turned right to head up the North River. I can only imagine what went through their heads, the gratitude they had for America accepting them as immigrants after fleeing from the Third Reich.
I also think of my experience at the end of survival school training as part of the preparation before going to Vietnam. I think of how that experience ended, with the simulated North Vietnam POW camp commander raising the American flag, the Star Spangled Banner playing, and each of us saluting and overwhelmed with emotion knowing that the United States of America and its armed forces would never abandon us if we were captured or killed.
The Supreme Court got it right in deciding that flag burning, however contemptible to some, is a form of speech that can convey a message that words themselves may not adequately express.
As I have often said in my commentaries, American freedom is unique, and that uniqueness is what makes our country exceptional. We should always remember that and that freedom doesn’t come without friction.