When the Flag Becomes God

They may be shooting themselves in the foot. One has to wonder if they really know what they are doing.

September 11, 2001 was one of the most traumatic events in U.S. history. The number of people killed in such a short time is unprecedented and it is the most spectacular attack ever witnessed on U.S. soil. The images of planes flying into the World Trade Center towers were shown over and over again. It was as if we needed to see the replay of the video to remind us that the nightmare was not a dream. The nation screamed with horror and there was an outcry of emotion across the globe. People expressed themselves in various ways. We began the healing process immediately.

A few days after the attack I visited Washington Square Park in New York City. The many expressions displayed by the people of the Big Apple moved me. Hundreds laid flowers, wreaths, and sadly pictures of missing love ones. Many of the pictures were accompanied by a plea to contact the missing person’s family with any information that may lead to finding them. These posting were heart wrenching to read. As days turned into weeks, I continued to observe and appreciate the way our citizens chose to express their horror, anger, defiance, pride, protest and forgiveness. There were many themes that ran through the displays. One in particular stood out to me. Citizens found several creative ways to use our flag.

Now I’m not one to do anything to the U.S. flag other than hang it, wave it, or fold it. So while I have never had occasion to write on our flag and I am certainly not a fan of desecration, I was impressed and appreciated the creative ways people expressed their varied emotions using the U.S. flag in the wake of September 11.

My actions as an American patriot are not centered on defense of borders and United States’ political interest. Creating a more perfect union that mirrors our stated ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people drives my patriotism. I expect to see our nation act in ways that support these principles and I resist actions that do not.From Two Flags One History
April may June 2001

Here I should take a few steps back and explain my thoughts about flag desecration. I have deep feelings about Old Glory. Two years ago in response to a previous vote by congress to ban flag desecration by amending the Constitution, I wrote Two Flags One History, an essay about the U.S. Flag and the Confederate Battle Flag.

I believe that the few Americans who feel the need to desecrate the flag are over reacting and forget that the flag is also a symbol of what is right about America and the freedom to express our political thoughts by burning the flag is a good reason not to burn it.

More About Flag DesecrationAmendment Info from the ACLU

The Flag Burning page. Great site with tons of info.

What makes our flag worthy of protection? A short statement against any law banning flag desecration. The best I’ve seen yet.

A Burning Issue: The Proposed Flag Desecration Amendment: A good rather long essay against the amendment.

U.S. Flag facts lesson plan. teachersvision.com

The opposing view.

The Citizens’ Flag Alliance: The leading group to pass the amendment.

Position On A Constitutional Amendment Prohibiting Flag Desecration: U.S. Rep. John Hostettler

Protect the Flag: U.S. Rep Ike Skelton 1999

Urge your Members of Congress to Oppose the Flag Desecration Amendment!

On the other hand, there are those who our country or government (depending on how one chooses to see it) has misled or forgotten. Homeless Vietnam veterans or any homeless veteran immediately comes to mind. Native Americans on reservations living in poverty are another group of people who have sound personal reasons to burn the U.S. flag. There are many others. People who do not fall into a recognizable group, but they share the injustice of when our system has failed them because of their color, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity. Many of these people have a moral justification beyond the constitutional right as stated in the Bill of Rights to desecrate our flag.

Do not misunderstand me. I believe everyone has freedom of expression and the right to treat the flag as they see fit. Our founding generation ratified the Bill of Rights not to layout these rights as given to us by the government. They believed then as I believe now that these rights are inalienable. A law depriving us of any of these rights and others not listed is in fact unjust. An amendment to the constitution does not make the law just, only legal. Governments can only recognize or choose to ignore inalienable rights. They cannot be taken or given to me by governments. Such is the definition of inalienable. So while I may show disdain for a White male protestor who may have never had a real injustice visited upon his person but feels the need to burn the flag, I will certainly proclaim and defend his right to do so. Such is a true democracy and part of the idea and dream that is America.

I am writing this essay because I am wondering if the proponents of the flag desecration amendment understand that they are undermining the government’s recognition of their right to use the flag as a means of expression. Would they restrict the hundreds and perhaps thousands of citizens who used the flag in their deep felt expression of patriotism and defiance to terror? Perhaps they would require citizens to fill out an application explaining their plans for the flag before granted or denied permission to use it as a means of expression.

After seeing the flag used over and over as the canvas to paint United We Stand and God Bless America along with countless other more creative sentiments, I foolishly thought this issue had been laid to rest. How can anyone think it is appropriate to stifle this form of expression? Who could possibly believe that writing God Bless American is ok, but writing God Will Punish America is wrong?

In early 2001 at the March for Women’s Lives action in Washington D.C. there were several creative Pro-Choice statements. Slogans like “Keep Your Hands of My Bush” and “We Will Not Return to the Days of the Coat-hanger.” The creativity was amazing. Probably the most clever, but strange display was that of several glad bags of women’s bush hairs gathered from across the nation. Women were asked to shave their bush in protest of George W. Bush Jr. and to say they want to maintain control of their bodies.  Among this deluge of free speech I saw painted on a U.S. flag the silhouette of a naked women bleeding from her vagina, coat hanger by her side. It was extremely graphic and disturbed me. I did not like seeing the flag used that way. But then I thought about my mother’s sister, an aunt I never knew. She died in 1952 as the result of a botched illegal abortion. Before Roe vs. Wade led to safe legal abortions. Since 911, I have seen the silhouette WTC towers in the NYC skyline painted on a flag. One is desecration and one is not? The lives lost in the Sep 11 attacks give moral license to speech that my aunt’s death does not?

What about religious symbols? There are many citizens who hold the bible in higher regard than the U.S. flag. I for one make an effort to never place anything on the bible. I treat the bible with the utmost respect. I try to treat all sacred text with reverence. But that is my personal choice. The government should not try to hold me accountable for how I treat my bible. Yet there are people who want put into law a demand for me to regard the U.S. flag with more respect than I do my bible, which to a Christian is the word of the creator. The flag meaning more than the bible and other sacred text is crazy. It is insane and arbitrary. Legislating political conscience is tyrannical and a measure of tyranny is arbitrary justice. Exactly the kind of abuse of power our founding generation was trying to guard against. But the flag desecration activists see it differently. And while I understand their feelings of patriotism, I also realize that in a free society, government does not legislate loyalty and conscience. Commanding my allegiance or reverence to government symbols demands I put the state before “God” and our humanity. It is fascist and communist (communism as once practiced in Russia and to a less extent now practiced in China). It is ultra-nationalist. It is un-American.

I don’t think they really know what they are doing.

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

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About Michael T. McPhearson

Currently Michael is executive director of Veterans For Peace and co-chair of the Don't Shoot Coalition, A Saint Louis based coalition that formed in the aftermath of Michael Brown's police killing death in Ferguson, MO. From August 2010 to September 2013, Michael worked as the National Coordinator with United For Peace and Justice. He is a former board member of Veterans For Peace and as well as Executive Director from 2005 to 2010. He works closely with the Newark based People’s Organization for Progress and the Saint Louis centered Organization for Black Struggle. Michel also publishes the Mcphearsonreport.org expressing his views on war and peace, politics, human rights, race and other things. Michael also launched Reclaimthedream.org website as an effort to change the discourse and ignite a new conversation about Dr. Martin Luther King’s message and what it means to live in just and peaceful communities.