Burning Issue. . .With a Risk Factor

Washington Times 4.04.00
Balint Vazsonyi

Last week the United States Senate narrowly defeated a proposed constitutional amendment, already passed by the House of Representative, that would have opened the door for laws that make desecration of the American flag illegal.

The American Legion, the oldest and largest veterans' organization, had battled for 11 years to protect the flag. Its 2.8 million members speak for Americans whose graves stretch around the globe, and who had given all in the service of our flag.

The Legion has been pleading for understanding of, and respect for, the sensitivities of those who have served, and of their families. Instead, for a change, we might look at those who are the reason for such a debate: the few who choose disrespect for, and desecration of the American flag "to express themselves."

First, the legal stuff. The First Amendment protects free speech. The Supreme Court, it seems, determined that flag burning was speech. On what authority? Article Three of the Constitution, establishing the high court, does not speak of interpreting the law. Only Federalist No. 78, written by Alexander Hamilton, suggests that function. But even Hamilton stops short of proposing that justices redefine words in the dictionary. There must be a concrete wall between words and deeds, or an emotional outburst containing the phrase "I'll kill you" would draw the death penalty in several states.

Speech is speech. Words. Spoken. Sounds uttered. Syllables in one, twos and multiples.

Let the high court interpret whatever is less than clear. The words of the First Amendment are crystal clear.

But that is only half the story.

While the burning of flags - something people do - is mistaken for something people say, the opposite appears to apply to certain other things people say. If someone finds something another person said offensive, our elected and appointed officials are determined to classify that as something the offender has done, inflicted upon another. And since certain deeds are punishable by law, certain things people say become punishable by law.

How so?

Isn't the First Amendment about freedom of speech? Does the Bill of Rights qualify what a person may and may not say?

Only in the Moscow edition.

Let us summarize: Desecrating the flag, something that offends American and Americans in general, is the exercise of free speech. On the other hand, uttering words of dislike about someone may well be considered an act, a criminal act, a culpable act.

Are we wetting the Constitution on its head?

Are we taking leave of our common sense?

Why is it legal for a person to hate all Americans, and why is it illegal to hate some Americans?

Of course, most of us would prefer to live in a society where no one hates anyone. Strangely, we seem to forget that preference when hatred is directed against our country, those who are first to serve it, or the very nature of our way of life.

And now to the haters - the America-haters, that is. I respect their views, we all do, I am sure. Not all of them burn the flag, in fact most just vent their anger about the Founders and the Founding of America. They usually engage in this activity during panel discussions, having arrived at the venue in their climate-controlled automobiles from their climate-controlled homes, where they had just tucked in the youngest computer-owner of the family and placed his $200 sneakers neatly at the foot of the bed.

I think we must bend over backward to make certain their rights are preserved. I also think we must maintain that uniquely American tradition whereby departing this country requires no official formalities. In fact, this is the only country with no passport control at the exit. Let us keep it that way.

Goodness knows, America has its faults. America has made mistakes. But after all these years of appealing to people's sense of decency, a collateral approach may be timely. We identify child molesters when they move into our neighborhood. We could do the same with those who molest all of us. Let their right to do so be upheld; our right to treat them with contempt be affirmed and exercised.

There are many ways to be critical. Within one's own family, the words and actions of judgment are usually different from those directed at strangers. And, when we are angry at our parents, children or siblings, we don't burn down the house in which we all live.

Or could that, too, become a way for people to express themselves?