Repeating history

August 27, 2004

SO IT'S THE Star-Spangled Banner and not the Stars and Stripes flying in front of City Hall these days. Pardon us for not hooting and hollering.

Under Mayor Martin O'Malley's executive order, signed on Monday, all city office buildings, parks, police stations and firehouses eventually will swap their standard American flags for the 15-star, 15-stripe one that waved over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore 190 years ago. Waving the old banner is meant to recall that event, which also inspired the words to the national anthem.

While such a small, symbolic change may match the allegedly puckish reputation of Charm City, it also prompts some puckish rejoinders. Is it a subtle way to dissociate the city from current U.S. policy? Does it diss the 35 other states? Does it deny the existence of any battles Baltimoreans have fought since then? Are we really repeating the past, as the mayor alludes to when comparing the 1814 fight to fights against Islamic extremists and those running the city's drug culture?

It's perfectly legal to fly any of the 27 flags that have been officially adopted over the years, and the 1814 version is a pretty flag - but it's unusual for a government to choose to look backward. Philadelphia does fly the Colonial-era flag in its historic district, but not in front of its current city buildings. Wags might say it shows that Baltimore is so poor it can't even afford to buy modern flags, but the joke is on them - the new old flags cost twice as much.

Baltimore takes pride in being a place where new Americans of all stripes fought together to make sure imperialist forces didn't trample their land or force them into a new government. But it also takes pride in being a living city - a city of the 21st century - on the forefront in biotechnology and state of the art medicine, working through the vagaries of fortune, enjoying some progress and looking forward to more.

So don't let the flags fool you: This isn't the next Colonial Williamsburg - nor does it aspire to be.

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