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Viewpoint by Leonard Pitts Jr.: Acts of patriotism or acts of desecration?

January 31, 2002

Not far from my house, there is a flag stretched across a fence. It's been there since shortly after Sept. 11, day and night, in all sorts of weather. So needless to say, the flag is not looking its best just now. Looks a little ratty, to tell you the truth. The colors have faded some, too.

In that, the flag on the fence is not unlike the flags on the car antennae, the flags on the freeway overpasses, the flags on the sides of buildings, the flags that have become ubiquitous since that awful day in late summer. Indeed, a few days ago, close to Ground Zero itself, I saw a flag whose colors might accurately be described as red, mud and blue. And, lest the glass house dweller be accused of lofting stones, let me confess that, yes, the flag hanging over my garage has seen better days.


I invoke this litany of flag abuse because I think it might be valuable in helping to deconstruct an "issue" that seems to periodically obsess certain of our lawmakers. By which I mean flag desecration. In recent years, the subject has risen predictably as tides; just last year, Congress began considering a proposed constitutional amendment that would outlaw acts of physical harm to the flag as acts of "desecration."

Which has always struck me as an oddly telling word. My dictionary says that to desecrate is "to damage something sacred, or do something that is offensive to the religious nature of something." Now, I respect, honor and pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. And to the republic for which it stands. But I don't worship them, don't consider them sacred or inviolable in the religious sense. It seems strange to me that some legislators apparently do.

But, I digress. More important than the choice of words here is their potential effect. I mean, to my knowledge, the backers of the proposed amendment have not bothered to define what constitutes doing physical harm to the flag. Still, it seems reasonable to assume that shredding it (as happens to flags whipping in the wind on cars doing 65) or allowing it to become streaked with mud (as happens to flags left hanging from overpasses and fences) would qualify.

So one wonders how people who do those things would fare under the proposed law. Would it matter that the "destruction" of those flags came as an expression of patriotism? The proposed amendment — currently buried, thank goodness, in a House subcommittee — draws no such distinction. It would simply confer to legislators both federal and state the power to prohibit flag desecration and impose criminal penalties on violators.

So you could, conceivably, wind up in jail for flying the flag on your antenna just as easily as some tax evader could for burning it. Who can be surprised? The law is an ax blade, not a scalpel. It's ill-equipped to parse nuances of motive and circumstance. Which should speak a word of caution to that cabal of lawmakers that seems fixated on criminalizing disrespect.

In a nation beset by no shortage of real problems, they keep expending time, talent and political capital on one that does not exist. When was the last time somebody set a flag on fire in your neighborhood? The fact is, the number of people who choose flag destruction as a means of protest in any given year is ridiculously small. And yet, some people think we ought to go to the extreme of amending the Constitution to stop them?

Those worn and tattered flags you see on fences and fluttering from Fords offer a brand-new reason to think that's a bad idea. Bad enough that abridging the freedom of speech it symbolizes damages the flag a lot more than some yokel with a match ever could. Bad enough that a heavy-handed federal law would probably invite more flag destruction than now exists. Now, on top of all that, add the specter of the guy with a flag on his fence being hauled away for the "crime" of saying God bless America.

Oh, say, can you see?

>>(Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald).

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