By James Hanmer
Burning or otherwise desecrating the American flag is an especially derisive gesture, like urinating on the Washington Monument or the graves at Arlington Cemetery. It is an act of such heinous disrespect for the history of the United States and for the millions of men and women who have risked or given their lives to preserve what that flag stands for, that many Americans might react to such a gesture with utter disgust, nationalistic pride, vitriol, or a desire for justice, whether in a court of law or a back alley. These reactions are understandable.
Yet, an empathetic case at least as compelling could be made for the outlawing of certain flags which represent a past attempt at disunion, and therefore are antithetical to what the American flag represents in their symbolic import: namely, any and all flags associated with the Confederate States of America (especially the battle flag known colloquially as the “stars and bars”). After all, did not the better part of half a million Americans perish to save the union and to ensure its constitutional guarantee of liberty would be upheld for all citizens regardless of their immutable characteristics?
No, we will not ban the “stars and bars”; we will not ban the flag of the Soviet Union; we will not ban the flag of Nazi Germany nor any of their other iconography. We will never again make illegal the desecration of the flag of the United States of America. The display or destruction of any of these symbols, or any others, no matter what their supposed significance, is protected speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Not only has this been confirmed in the Supreme Court, but it is apparent apriori, since the meaning of any word or symbol is not inherent. More importantly, free speech must include any and all speech, save threats to violence, no matter how noxious any given individual finds that speech. Otherwise, the First Amendment becomes an utterly meaningless provision. For, if one symbol can be protected from scrutiny or degradation due to its subjective valuation, why cannot any other?
To make symbols sacred is a practice best left to the ecclesiastical authorities of the Middle Ages. In a republic such as ours, we must welcome heretics, blasphemers, dissidents, and the flags which they choose to hoist or burn. If some opinion or symbol offends, the onus of responsibility falls upon the offended, not the offender, since they must remain civil and respect the other party’s right to free speech. This seems to be something we have largely forgotten, or perhaps not yet learned, as evidenced by the recent uptake in unprovoked political violence, such as the sucker-punching of white supremacists or the assaulting of speakers on college campuses. Even in mild forms such as the tossing of milkshakes at right-wing figures, aggression against others for expressing their views is as disturbingly authoritarian as the prohibition of flag burning.
James Hammer is a student at the University of Maryland. He places himself in the bottom-right of the political compass, though he’s not to attached to any doctrine other than U.S. Constitutionalism.