By Edwin D. Reilly,
for the Sunday Gazette
You're a grand old
flag, You're a high flying flag
And forever in peace
may you wave.
You're the emblem
of, the land I love,
The home of the free
and the brave.
-George M. Cohan
The American flag is
a symbol, admittedly one capable of evoking strong emotion.
But a symbol is not
the thing itself.
November 27, 1996.
July 4 is my favorite
secular holiday. All my life, I have
been a ceremonial conservative. I love "76 Trombones," fireworks,
parades that feature Sousa marches and Old Glory, and the patriotic
George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin. Like John F. Kennedy, my favorite
"Hail to the Chief," but I liked it better when it was played for
goaded on by many veterans
(and I am one myself), the House of Representatives, as it has done in
session since the one led by Newt Gingrich in 1995, has passed a
"flag-burning amendment" bill as the first step to amending the U.S.
Constitution. Actually, its simplistic wording doesn't mention flag
se; its entire text consists of the 20 words "The Congress and the
shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of
the United States."
appeal of such an amendment is not surprising, but that appeal is 100
emotional. As one of the opening quotes says, "a symbol is not the
itself." Burning or harming a flag doesn't hurt the country—unless,
is, one believes in voodoo. (And that's usually reserved for
philosophical objections to the proposed amendment are based on its
infringement of the First Amendment. Another objection is that it is a
in search of a problem. Since 1776, there have been only 200 documented
instances of flag burning as a political protest, less than one per
is more likely to be hit by lightning or win the lottery than to
witness an act
of flag burning as a political statement. But by the law of unintended
consequences, there are likely to be more if the amendment is adopted.
my own objections are based on
linguistics and logic. First, all of the dictionaries I own from the
Oxford English Dictionary to many later ones say that "desecration"
has a religious connotation Desecration,
from the Latin "desecrate," means "to take away its consecrated
or sacred character." For examples, someone who breaks into a synagogue
and destroys the congregation's copy of the Torah or who breaks into
vault of a Christian saint could be said to have committed an act of
desecration, but destruction of a secular object, quite literally,
cannot be so
characterized, however distasteful in might be.>
logic. Suppose the proposed amendment is also passed by a two-thirds
better in the Senate and then ratified by the necessary three-fourths
states. Imagine the Congress or some state legislature trying to draft
applicable statute. Their bill would have to start with a definition.
precisely, is "the flag of the United States"? Is it not
the current 50-star flag, proudly shown above, but also any one of the
26 that preceded it?
the current one, then burning an old one would not be covered. And must
flag be made of cloth? What about plastic? What about mere images of
such as those on T-shirts that almost but don't quite cover beer
there are canonical ways to display the flag (its union, for example,
always be at the top left, even when the flag hangs vertically), there
precise specifications for a legal flag of the United States
Suppose a pseudo-flag had 15 stripes; or its red and white stripes were
reversed; or its "stars" had the wrong
shape; or its 50 stars had a rectangular rather than a staggered
ratio of its length to its width was too short (it must be exactly 1.9
to 1, no
more, no less, as is the case here). If someone were to burn a
more of those defects, would that be covered under law? If so,
lawmakers will have to find a way to describe lots of things that look
much like legal flags but really are not. Lots of luck.
recent House passage of the desecration amendment, on June 4, was by a
of 300-125 with 10 abstentions, that is, it squeaked by with 69% of the
House, 2% more than needed. Sad to say, our two local Representatives,
whom occupy very safe seats, voted for the amendment. The Senate is not
to concur, but I was astounded to find that Senator Orrin Hatch's bill
co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. But
if the Senate can muster the
needed 67 votes, the President cannot veto the action (nor would he, of
course), and state legislators all over the country will ratify the
in record time (unless, of course, they read my column).
suppose this happens. I have a recommendation for an appropriate
anyone convicted under laws passed in accord with the new amendment.
person should be sentenced to sit through every session of Congress for
and attentively listen to all debate. That would be a Capitol
befits the crime.
D. Reilly, Jr., a ceremonial conservative, lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the
Gazette opinion pages.