Old Glory days

June 14, 2006

To: The Star-Spangled Banner

Smithsonian Institution

Washington, D.C.

Well, old girl, it's that time of year again. There'll be bands and parades and fireworks over Fort McHenry to celebrate the 229th anniversary of the Stars and Stripes being chosen as America's flag. And, of course, your particular role in inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem during the War of 1812.

Despite divisions in the country over the war in Iraq, the American flag has largely been able to escape being caught up in the bitterness, as it was during the Vietnam War. In fact, it could be argued that since 9/11, Old Glory has rarely been more popular, both as a unifying symbol for the country and a fashion statement - copied in all manner of clothing and home accessories with no offense intended or taken.

Yet this dearth of flag controversy hasn't cooled the passions of your self-appointed champions in the Senate, who are pressing for a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to make flag desecration a federal crime.

Cynics might call this a political stunt to score points for patriotism. But the politicians are trying to appeal to veterans and other Americans genuinely appalled at even the thought of disrespect to successors of your precious, tattered self.

What they don't understand is the enormous compliment paid to the flag by those who down through history have used it in gestures of protest - Southern rebels during the Civil War, suffragists at the turn of the century, Ku Klux Klan members picketing the Coolidge White House, civil rights demonstrators during the 1960s and, of course, opponents of the Vietnam War. Protesters choose to use - or misuse - the flag because they want to provoke outrage.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that flag burning and similar gestures qualify as constitutionally protected free speech. That's why two-thirds of Congress and the legislatures of three-fourths of the states would have to amend the Constitution to do away with that right. But limiting rights is anathema to the ideals celebrated in Flag Day tributes to the banner that waves over the land of the free and home of the brave.

Supporters of the flag protection amendment have repeatedly prevailed in the House but never before in the Senate. As a fitting tribute to your grand old self, senators ought to reject the amendment again.

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