Some Flag Day Thoughts on Flag Burning


We seem to be having yet another of our occasional, moronic flare ups of that perennial Kabuki fight, the flag burning debate, and today seems like as good a day as any to say something about it. Of course, there isn't a whole lot to say—it's a simple enough issue and the ground's well covered—but here's one thought I haven't seen floated elsewhere. Since we're talking about amending the Constitution, I sometimes think there just must be some epidemic of daily flag-burnings on every streetcorner, but as far as I can ascertain, it's actually pretty rare. Every now and then you see some 14 year old soi-disant "anarchist" in a black bandanna torch one at a protest or something, but everyone else invariably seems either bored or embarassed by such antics: As a rule, people here recognize that while maybe flag burning is considered political speech under the First Amendment, it is almost always stupid, counterproductive political speech that's not going to win you any friends.

No, burning American flags is a lot like soccer: Americans have never gotten all that into it, but it's wildly popular in much of the rest of the world. A rest of the world that, barring a third Bush term, American law does not cover. So it might be worth considering the effects of a burn ban in the places where most of the actual flag burning happens. What do people in the rest of the world think of when they see an American flag being burned? Maybe they just see opposition to American policy or military power. But maybe—if we're lucky—they also see opposition to American values: Freedom, democracy, reality television. In the wake of a constitutional amendment, though, I can guarantee what a lot of them will think instead is: "This act of political dissent would be a crime in the United States." And in the shadow of that tought, every hateful claim the people burning those flags make about the hollowness of America's commitment to the high-sounding principles it proclaims will seem a little more plausible.