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Logic of flag-burning amendment
supporters doesn't hold up

Before we allow our Congressmen to change our country's Constitution to protect its symbol, We should take a rational look at the arguments for such change.

I operate an Internet site which allows people to "burn" a virtual flag, read the history of flag desecration, and leave their comments for the world to see. While answering the hundreds of messages that this generates, I have found that there is no logical basis for supporting such a drastic change to the United States Constitution.

Senator Bob Dole claims "there is only one way to correct the situation, and that is to pass a constitutional amendment." This is not the only way. If the protest occurs in public, enforce applicable laws against trespass or arson. Burning someone else's flag is vandalism. An amendment would be a drastic measure against a type of protest that occurs only about eight times a year.

Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said "as tombstones are not for toppling, nor churches for vandalizing, flags are not for burning." Arizona's freshman Representative Matt Salmon expressed a similarly flawed reason -- that neither U.S. currency nor mailboxes could legally be destroyed. The flaw inherent in this argument is that none of those protected items are personal property. If this amendment passes, it would be the first time in America's history when a person could go to Wal-mart and purchase an item he could never legally destroy.

Many of the amendment's supporters have stated that the laws would not cover any non-desecratory acts, such as sun-faded U.S. flag bumper stickers. Of the virtual flag desecration on the Internet, Rep. Sam Johnson, (R-Dallas), said "A computer simulated version of a flag burning. . . cannot be treated the same as the act of desecrating an actual flag." This opens up two potential difficulties with the legislation. First, the amendment merely states "Congress and the States shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States." There is no provision in that statement to prohibit any State from enacting laws against cutting cakes shaped like the U.S. flag. Second, it will be a selectively enforced law. It will not be used to stop Republicans from sweating into flag-emblazoned socks. It will only be used against those who are thinking "anti-American thoughts" during their desecration. The fact that the law will actually be punishing thoughts, not acts, makes it a most dreadful proposition indeed.

Another of Matt Salmon's motivations for cosponsoring this amendment is the "thought of Americans having died to protect the flag that protesters desecrate." As many Vietnam veterans have told me via e-mail, it was never the piece of cloth they fought for -- it was what that flag stood for. The flag stands for the freedom each American has, including the right to burn that very symbol.

William Detwiler, National Commander of the American Legion, testified in Congress that "this amendment will. . . reinstate respect for the flag as one of the guiding principles of our nation." Actually, it will mandate respect for the flag. Respect that comes only through threat of imprisonment is neither earned nor deserved.

Another argument is that one cannot shout "fire!" in a theater. Of course not, but if flag burning were to be as serious a threat to human life as an incitation to riot, it would be treated as such. If a flag-burning protest was to escalate to such a level where lives or property were threatened, we already have laws to remedy that situation.

I think if the supporters of this amendment look at the situation with an unbiased, non-partisan mind, they would understand that this is a legislative idea which is at best unnecessary, and at worst, extremely dangerous. They would realize that they are blindly following a party line without rational or logical thought.

Warren S. Apel is a biologist and political activist living in Tempe. His Internet site is located at http://www.indirect.com/user/warren/flag

This is the article (640 words) as it appeared on 6-30-95 in the Tribune Newspapers, published by Cox Arizona Publications.
The original draft, (1280 words) is also available.

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