Flag Burning Not As Big A Problem As It Seems

31 March 2000

By Stentor Danielson

Amid a host of truly important issues, the Senate chose this week to address a proposed Constitutional amendment that would prohibit the burning of the American flag.

The amendment, proposed by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a former presidential candidate, read "Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States." The amendment received only 63 of the 67 votes required to pass the Senate.

Though it seems like a harmless injunction, the Senate was right to defeat the amendment, as well as a proposal to ban flag burning without changing the Constitution. It is unfortunate, however, that this defeat will not stop people from exerting so much energy to stop such a small problem.

The amendment was passed last week by the House of Representatives in an attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court's 1989 ruling in Texas v. Johnson that laws prohibiting flag-burning violated the Constitutional guarantee of free speech. An attempt in 1995 to amend the Constitution fell three votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass. Failed attempts also were made in 1997 and 1999.

The amount of attention attracted by flag burning is more a problem than any show of disrespect to this country or law against it.

Flag burning is not a serious enough problem to warrant the attention it is receiving. But when passions are raised, people too often forget the how small the problem really is.

The Citizens' Flag Alliance, a pro-amendment organization, says, "The struggle over this Constitutional Amendment, which is now eleven years old, is nothing less than a battle for the soul of the nation." The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) quotes veteran Gary May as saying the amendment is an "assault on First Amendment freedoms." These are strong words for such a rare infraction.

The actual scope of the issue is at odds with the impassioned statements of both supporters and opponents of the legislation. This is especially apparent from the lack of specific illustrations of the problem in the rhetoric on both sides.

It is a well-known rhetorical principle that specifics are more moving and effective than generalities. For example, nearly every debate about gun control or school violence eventually makes reference to the tragedy at Columbine High School last year. The shootings there are a powerful tool to illustrate the problems of violence in our society.

But arguments to ban flag burning are strangely lacking in such incidents. If flag-burning is so rampant that it requires a constitutional amendment to prohibit it, people would be pointing to more specific examples.

Statistics, too, are lacking. Returning to the example of the gun control debate, one sees statistics everywhere one turns. Nowhere, it seems, are there statistics about how many flags are actually burned each year.

This lack of statistics and examples prompts the question of where all the flag burners that so enrage supporters of the amendment are. Indeed, Acting Assistant Attorney General Randolph D. Moss, in a statement to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, says "the last nine years have witnessed no outbreak of flag burning, but only a few isolated instances."

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) is one of many individuals who have spoken out in favor of the amendment. He articulated the popular view that prohibiting flag burning would ensure respect for an object revered by many as a symbol of the admirable ideals upon which this nation was founded. But in attempting to answer the objections of those who consider flag burning to be free speech, he says, "I believe we have an inviolable duty to protect the right of free speech."

The contradiction in McCain's argument points out the absurdity in having a flag burning debate. A flag burning amendment would do little to curb disrespect for this country when other avenues of expression are left open. Whether we have a flag burning amendment or not, the country will not change.

Intelligent debate is vital to the functioning of a democracy, especially debates that encompass values and opinions as diverse as those held by the citizens of the United States. But the interests of the country are better served when debaters' energy is funneled into issues that are of more significance than a rare extremist way to express discontent.

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