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Virtually Radical

Cyberspace protest of proposed amendment attacks Old Glory in new way

By Todd Copilevitz
Staff Writer of The Dallas Morning News
April 4, 1995
Reprinted with permission

Warren Apel is redefining what it means to flame on the Internet. For most, flaming means sending electronic hate mail. For Mr. Apel, it means burning the U.S. flag in cyberspace.

And the Tempe, Ariz., genetic engineer wants others to join him on the Internet, sparking interest and indignation at the first computer interactive political protest. Mr. Apel put his protest on the World Wide Web, a magazine-like section of the Internet, the international network of computers.

"Get out your Zippos, it's The Flag-Burning Page!" reads the headline of the first in a set of pages he designed. He made them to protest a proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit desecrating Old Glory,he said.

Internet users who access the page can click on a picture of a waving flag or the phrase "Burn, baby, burn," to receive the first of three images of a burning flag. With the images there are sarcastic comments such as: "Well, now you did it. She's blazing and Newt's (Gingrich) not gonna like it," and "Don't stop now. Who brought the marshmallows?"

But Mr. Gingrich, the speaker of the House of Representatives and a vocal opponent of flag-burning, isn't the only one who doesn't like flag burning. "I don't believe what I'm looking at," said Jeff Williams of Pullman, Wash., as he accessed the page on his computer. "Just the name of the page I find offensive." Mr. Williams runs the Conservative Link, an index of sites on the World Wide Web for political conservatives.

There is a difference, however, between a virtual act and the real thing, said Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Dallas, who supports the proposed amendment.
"A computer simulated version of a flag burning, although it is just as deplorable, cannot be treated the same as the act of desecrating an actual flag," he said.

For years, the Internet and commercial on-line services have been a hotbed for political organizers to rally people to their causes, both liberal and conservative. Debates over hot-button issues fill electronic discussion groups, and newsletters keep like-minded people up to date.

Until now, most of the political activism was confined to electronic petitions, collections of E-mail signatures that were eventually printed out and presented to politicians.

But Mr. Apel tapped a new approach, staging a protest on-line. He said he did it to spark debate after reading about a constitutional amendment proposed by Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., and backed by several of Mr. Apel's area representatives.

The issue has been a recurring proposal since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Dallas police violated a protester's civil rights when they arrested him for burning the flag outside the 1984 Republican Convention.

"I was thinking I ought to protest the amendment somehow," Mr. Apel said. "I could go down to the state capitol and burn a flag. But usually when people do that they use the wrong kind of flag, so it just melts rather than burns, and they end up looking really stupid."

"Besides, taking a tongue-in-cheek approach to politics is a good way to make the debate a little more open," he said. "If you come out ranting and raving, people don't take you too seriously."

Mr. Apel has made pages for the World Wide Web for nearly a year. Most of them have been related to the music scene in Tempe or to poetry, he said.

Using Internet access and programs called browsers, people receive full-screens of text and pictures from computers around the world, linked like a web. By clicking a mouse on highlighted sections of a page they receive additional information and pictures.

In less than an hour, Mr. Apel cobbled together The Flag Burning Page (http://www.indirect.com/ user/warren/flag). Beyond burning the flag, he included an explanation of why he created the page and a chance for others to leave their thoughts, pro or con.

"I would imagine that there are people who are going to be very opposed to this," he said. "I welcome the debate."

He was right. One person left a message calling him a "cultural Nazi." "How much would you like to bet that you really don't support the idea of 'freedom of expression' and that you are really just a cultural anarchist?" wrote another visitor.

"How about as a test you set up a virtual burning of a Star of David," the same visitor wrote. "You wouldn't do that because your support of 'violence' against the signs and symbols of culture and civilization is selective."

Bill McBride isn't too happy about the page either. He's the creator of the Vietnam Veteran's Home Page on the Web (http://grunt. space.swri.edu/index.html).

"It's a visceral issue. He's probably going to get some sympathy for this page. But he's bound to get a lot of flames (E-mail complaints)," said the San Antonio veteran.

But both Mr. McBride and Mr. Williams credit Mr. Apel for finding a new use for the Web.

"He could have posted just a series of pages with his thoughts, but it wouldn't have the same effect," Mr. Williams said. "It sure does create an impact, I'll give him that much. And it will spark debate."

In fact readers of the Conservative Link (http://www.moscow .com/~bmdesign/tcl/conintro.html) will have an on-screen button that takes them directly to The Flag Burning Page, Mr. Williams said.

"I think they'd be interested to see and will certainly have something to say," he said.

Similarly, students and alumni from Texas A&M University could have a word or two for Mr. Apel.

A tag line on the protest page notes: "No actual flags were harmed in the production of this page."

Instead, Mr. Apel combined pictures of a flag with pictures of flames borrowed from photos of the Aggies' annual bonfire preceding the A&M vs. University of Texas football game.

"I needed big flames, and the pictures they put on the Web of their bonfire were perfect," Mr. Apel said.

Said A&M spokeswoman Mary Jo Powell: "That's a cruel irony. Knowing the feelings our students have for both the bonfire and flags, I'm certain a segment of our students won't be happy to hear that."

The URL in this article was correct at the time. The pages have since moved to my new domain of www.esquilax.com. -- Warren

Warren S. Apel