Are We Burning Freedom?

by John W. Whitehead

“Rome did not fall because her armies weakened but because Romans forgot what being a Roman meant.”—Salman Rushdie

Have we forgotten what it means to be American? Freedom, dissent, protest—after all, our country began with a revolution. More and more, I hear Americans proclaiming that security is more important than freedom. But as Dwight Eisenhower once said: “If all Americans want is security, they can go to prison. They’ll have enough to eat, a bed and a roof over their heads.”

But freedom is what America is all about. The American flag is the recognized symbol of our nation’s freedom. And since 1776, countless Americans have offered the ultimate sacrifice to defend the freedom and liberty that it represents. Thus, it is not surprising that the great majority of Americans have an overwhelming respect for the flag.

However, once again the U.S. Congress is embroiled in an effort to pass an amendment to the Constitution that criminalizes burning the flag. Indeed, penalties for violating any flag laws will include jail time and fines. This despite the fact that, as the New York Times points out, those politicians pushing for the amendment cannot point to a single instance of anti-American flag burning in the last 30 years.

Although the “Flag Amendment” has failed four times in the Senate (it passed in the House of Representatives in July 2005), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has brought the issue up as a Senate priority. The only difference between this attempt and previous ones is that this time proponents of the constitutional ban on flag burning only need one more vote in the Senate to send it on its way to the states for ratification. The vote is scheduled to take place on June 26, 2006.

But since there is clearly no deluge of flag burning occurring in the United States, we must ask: Why is Congress attempting yet again to pass a constitutional amendment aimed at banning the burning of the American flag?

With congressional elections right around the corner and the nation facing many critical yet unresolved issues, our politicians are again attempting to distract us by focusing on a symbol of American patriotism common to us all. After all, most Americans, including myself, believe the flag should be honored and respected and that its desecration is extremely offensive, disrespectful and repugnant. But the freedoms that the flag represents are paramount to the flag as a symbol.

Woodrow Wilson once stated, “The flag is a flag of liberty of opinion as well as of political liberty.” The American flag represents true liberty, including the right to express your views—even when those views are unpopular. In fact, the flag’s representation of freedom is perhaps best served when it protects speech that others, including the government, find abhorrent.

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that flag burning is a form of free expression protected by our First Amendment. Justice Brennan wrote, “The function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”

Brennan accurately understood that the First Amendment allows radicals and dissidents to express themselves publicly instead of covertly organizing attacks against our country. Free speech facilitates political discourse, which, as our Founders understood, is critical to a flourishing democratic process. But censoring speech in any form simply breeds resistance and violence. Those who hold views that are suppressed and stamped out feel that the only way to bring attention to their cause is to capture the world’s attention through violent attacks.

Also, without free speech, many of America’s most profound national movements could never have occurred. For example, although he was jailed several times for leading and organizing passive civil disobedience protests, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., used free speech to educate Americans about what we have in common as human beings despite our racial differences. Of course, his many speeches and ultimately his living legacy that was derived through his words are what fueled the civil rights movement. King’s message was offensive and threatening to many. But the right to freely speak that message is what moved the nation toward equality for all.

Aryeh Neier offers another example of why true free speech—no matter how detestable the message—is necessary for true liberty. Neier understood that freedom for popular causes is conditioned on freedom for all causes, including those that are unpopular or offensive. Although he was a survivor of the Jewish Holocaust, he decided to defend the ACLU’s decision to fight for the rights of Nazis who wanted to march in a Jewish neighborhood. He wrote:

If the Nazis are free to speak, they may win converts. It is possible that they will win so many adherents that they will attain the power to abolish freedom and to destroy me…. The restraints that matter most to me are those which ensure that I cannot be squashed by power, unnoticed by the rest of the world. If I am in danger, I want to cry out to my fellow Jews and to all those I may be able to enlist as my allies. I want to appeal to the world’s sense of justice. I want restraints which prohibit those in power from interfering with my right to speak, my right to publish, or my right to gather with others who also feel threatened. Those in power must not be allowed to prevent us from assembling and joining our voices together so we can speak louder and make sure that we are heard.

While America faces many critical challenges that have a daily impact on us as citizens—high gas prices, a rising national debt, immigrants streaming over our borders and a war that has called many of our friends and family across the globe—those in Congress would have us focus on an amendment to ban something that seldom, if ever, occurs. But more importantly, they would have us believe that banning the destruction of a national symbol is more important than the freedom that symbol represents.

Indeed, when our nation sends men and women in uniform to war—perhaps never to return alive—we don’t send them to fight for a symbol. We send them to fight for the freedom and liberty it represents—even when that freedom results in speech and ideas that we find offensive.

As columnist Nat Hentoff commented, “The only countries I know that punish the desecration of their flags are China, Iran and Cuba.” Do we really want to become like them?

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