“To burn or not to burn?”
The question asked by countless Americans over the past hundred years, addressed by State legislatures enacting laws to protect the flag from desecration such as burning, the U.S. Congress who approved the Federal Flag Desecration Law in 1968 to protect it from this and other acts of contempt, and ultimately answered by the Supreme Court of the United States in June 1990.
Do Americans have the Constitutional right to burn our Star Spangled Banner in protest under the protection of the First Amendment of free speech? The answer from SCOTUS: Yes. It is protected under the First Amendment as free speech.
In 2005, Congress passed a law to amend the Constitution to protect the flag from desecration, but when it reached the Senate in 2006, it failed to pass by one vote. It was argued by some at the time that flag burnings were rare. President Clinton was opposed to an amendment to the Constitution, and some have pointed to this as contributing to its failure to pass. Meanwhile, burning and other disrespectful acts to the flag have risen.
I won’t address the constitutional debate of freedom of speech; although I do see it as a hypocritical stance when Jews and Christians cannot exercise their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion to display The Ten Commandments and crosses, or pray at after-school sports games and graduation ceremonies. But I will protest the shameful treatment of the American flag by unhappy Americans. It does not just represent the federal government. It represents all fifty states of the Union.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in South Baltimore, where to escape the hot pavements that surrounded our 19th century row houses, the neighborhood kids flocked to the one oasis in our grassless city blocks: Federal Hill Park. This green-hilled, tree-shaded parcel of earth provided an adventurous, safe playground. Here fun meant swinging from its sturdy swings and playing Hide and Seek in its spacious fields and hidden bushes, and riding on cardboard slides down its steep snow-covered hills in winter.
But some of its best playtime props were the huge black cannons that still stand on its hilly perimeter overlooking the sprawling port of Baltimore. Sitting atop one of these authentic cannons from that War of 1812, one could easily imagine the harbor below aflame with “the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air.” Actually, the grand old navy battleship, The U.S. Constellation, is still berthed in Baltimore’s thriving historic harbor. Every day she is boarded by tourists and curious school kids who walk across her antique gangplank into America’s naval infancy.
Or maybe it’s my fondness for another national historical site that also serves as a favorite field trip for many Maryland school kids. Just around the water’s bend from Federal Hill lies Fort McHenry, where patriot Francis Scott Key penned his lively poem that became our national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner. I distinctly remember one particular visit to the Fort. I was just a teen when I stood at the Fort’s farthest edge, looking out across the quiet water. It was a foggy day, very heavy and gray, even a little eerie. Transfixed by the moment, I found myself peering through the mist trying to see something. I could imagine how it must have felt to peer through the smoky clouds that accompanied that foggy dawn when Key saw “that our flag was still there!” And what he saw was not just a burned, tattered, beaten flag, but a Star Spangled Banner waving in proud protest “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Perhaps this had a greater impact on me because I went to junior high school just a few blocks’ walking distance from Fort McHenry. That would be Francis Scott Key Junior High School, where we were keenly and proudly aware of the significance and legacy of our great namesake.
Surely, if the flag of that fateful morning moved Key to such patriotic poetic inspiration, there must be some today who are moved to lumpy throats and brimming eyes when they see her commanding, unfurled glory in the time of national crises, such as we saw through the smoking silhouette of the fallen twin towers following the anti-American terrorist attack on 9-11. I cannot recall that triumphant moment in 200l when firefighters at New York’s Ground Zero defiantly raised our flag above the smoldering wreckage and not feel the pull of my heartstrings that resounds: “God Bless America, land that I love…!” Because this flag is the most recognizable emblem of the land that I love, it is the flag that I love!
Baltimore the Bannerful
Baltimore, where I was born and grew up, not only boasts the birthplace of our national anthem, specifically written in homage to our flag, but also the Flag House. Located on a landmark street not far from Baltimore’s exciting Harborplace, is the place where Betsy Ross lovingly hand sewed our nation’s first beautiful banners.
My high school years were spent at Southern High School across the street from Federal Hill Park. (The school has since relocated.) My former childhood playground was a serene lunchtime retreat from our demanding classroom hustle. This historic battle site still affords her visitors the best panoramic view of Baltimore’s attractive waterfront and skyline with Old Glory flying grandly in its modern frame. These youthful photos of our local national monuments are safely filed in the memory banks of my mind. They may be a little faded, but not forgotten, and the symbolism of our flag is anchored firmly in them. This is why I still get weepy-eyed when I see her proudly raised to the symphony of The Star Spangled Banner behind our nation’s finest athletes standing tall on Olympic podiums: Some shining with tears, some with grins ear-to-ear, but every face aglow with deserving pride.
In a few weeks, we will watch our newest American stars compete in Rio, and once again we will cheer with unfurled flags: “USA! USA!” And when the gleam of gold is placed upon the winners’ necks, the Stars & Stripes will lower behind them. With hands on hearts, lips in sync to The Star Spangled Banner, they will bask in the glory of their accomplishments as America’s pride and joy. Red, yellow, black, and white, they represent this Flag, and this Flag represents us all.
How more precious is the sacred flag that is placed into the hands of a grieving parent, a weeping widow, or a mourning child, whose loved one is lowered into the final rest of American soil, having served his or her country unto death? It is even more precious, knowing long ago this soil was watered by the blood of colonial patriots who paid the awful down payment to call her “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
We know that the fledgling America, though perfect in her ideals, fell woefully short in her performance during the decades of slavery. For tens of thousands it was not the land of the free, but it was the home of the brave. Those brave men and women, boys and girls, who in their captivity and suffering, had come to know the God of the Bible, found in Him refuge and the promise of liberty. Their liberty of soul and spirit forged in them the strength and resolve to trust God for their freedom from man’s servitude, and He raised up godly men to bring it to pass. The Union divided, the great American democracy threatened to perish from the earth, but Heaven’s plan for “the land of the free” prevailed.
So when I see raging men in foreign lands revile America by gleefully burning our flag in their streets, a flash of indignation pierces my soul. Yet in these anti-American, anti-Judeo-Christian times, I have come to expect this evil display from sworn enemies who hate us, because they are jealous and threatened by the freedoms we enjoy. But here? At home? On blood-bought American soil? Where thousands of our finest protectors are buried in her loving bosom in defense of this great “land of the free”?
To those Americans who maintain their right to desecrate our flag in the name of “free speech”, I offer a more meaningful sacrifice: Open your wallets and divest yourselves of the greenbacks that bear the likenesses of our founding fathers who faithfully crafted the documents of liberty that gave you free speech. Certainly this would be a persuasive protest!
Come to think of it, I cannot recall a single incident when American dollars were burned in the streets of foreign countries and stamped under foot as a great evil to be renounced. They may hate our guts, but they love our money!
And here at home, it’s illegal to burn our money, punishable by the Secret Service. Imagine that! Burn the Red, White & Blue, an American symbol of all that’s good in America, and you’re okay. Burn the American greenback, and you can be prosecuted.
When Americans desecrate our flag, they not only tarnish Old Glory, they humiliate all Americans in the eyes of our many enemies and give them occasion to revile us more. It is not an act of denigration against Washington, DC and our elected officials. It is the denigration of all American citizens from sea to shining sea.