Editorial by the Minot (N.D.) Daily News

Monday, July 13, 1998

Desecrating the American flag is a contemptible act. It shouldn't be taken lightly or ignored. But important as flag desecration is, an amendment to the Constitution would be inappropriate.

If one small voice can be silenced by amending the Constitution, it could also happen to any or all of us. The right to protest by burning a flag is the same as free speech. Those who swear that it isn't the same are opting for the easy way out of an uncomfortable situation.

Politicians have been held hostage by voters on issues that require unpopular decisions since the beginning of time. The flag amendment is only the latest example of such a situation. Patriotic Americans who believe that desecration of the American flag must be outlawed are letting an emotional reaction to something horrible overrule the well-reasoned conclusions of our Founding Fathers.

In 1791, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution were adopted. Known as the Bill of Rights, they have not been amended or abridged since.

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Texas vs. Johnson contained the following: We can imagine no more appropriate response to burning a flag than by waving one's own … We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in so doing we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.”

At home in Anytown, U.S.A., far from war or other troubles, with a job, a well-stocked pantry and a car to drive anywhere they want to go, most Americans do not understand what kind of injustice would cause a person to commit a horrible act such as flag desecration. But, that inability to understand does not give them the right to deny such an expression to someone who does find such an injustice.

Vietnam war protesters who burned the flag were criticized and attacked from all sides. They did, however, help bring the injustice of that war to the forefront among a generally complacent population. Although those protesters were blamed at the time for being part of the cause of America's inability to win the war, we now know that inability was due to the actions or inactions of high-level government officials, both civilian and military.

Maybe those flag-burners were rather like the canaries in the coal mines. They warned us of tragedy. They just did it with an outrageous action. Other outrageous actions were taken by Buddhist monks who burned themselves to death in public streets. Both of those horrendous kinds of actions raised people's awareness of the war and more and more questions began to be asked.

Maybe lives were saved by those actions. We'll never know.

  • Today, a Vietnam prisoner of war is featured in a television ad opposing the amendment. He tells of his captors showing him pictures of flag-burning protesters and reiterates his reaction, “those pictures prove that we're right and that our country is strong. We're not afraid of freedom — even when we disagree.”

  • Today, many veterans groups say a flag-protection law would be struck down by the Supreme Court, therefore we must have an amendment. Such contradictory beliefs clearly expose what's wrong with an amendment.

    We can't have it both ways. We either retain our freedoms under the Bill of Rights or we begin to dismantle those freedoms. After freedom of speech is gone, which one would be next: the right “to keep and bear arms” or the right “to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures”?

    Silence, speech and actions of protest are all valid ways to bring attention to issues or situations a person feels overwhelmingly passionate about. Allowing — or better yet, welcoming — controversy is a fundamental precept of the American governing process.

    Democracy only works when all manner of expression is allowed.

    Most final decisions are generally based on the will of the majority, but the input of dissenters, protesters and critics is such a valuable portion of the process that to do away with even the smallest part of it would be detrimental to American cultural life and governance.

    North Dakota's two Democratic senators, Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, voted against the flag amendment the last time it reached the Senate. They should do the right thing, and vote against it again.

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