Monday, June 28, 2004

As a 23-year U.S. Navy serviceman, Vietnam War veteran, former official in the Reagan Defense Department, and lifelong Republican, I revere the flag and that “for which it stands.” I still get a lump in my throat when I see the flag raised or lowered. Nonetheless, I unalterably oppose the constitutional amendment prohibiting its desecration that is scheduled to be sent to the Senate floor soon.

During my years of military and government service during the Cold War, I believed I was working to uphold democracy against totalitarianism. I did not believe then, nor do I believe now, that I was defending lines on a map; rather, I was defending a way of life. If this amendment becomes part of the Constitution, this way of life will be diminished. America will be less free and more like the former Soviet Union, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Until now, constitutional amendments have been used, by and large, to expand rights rather than rescind them. This amendment, in contrast, would reduce our freedom of expression — a freedom that encourages vigorous debate and dissent, and helps prevent abuses of power in a democracy. We must be especially wary of limiting our freedoms at this time in our history. Since the tragedy of September 11, 2001, there has been a tendency to overreact and pass legislation, like the Patriot Act, parts of which wrongly restrict civil liberties.

Backers of the measure seek to change the Constitution because their ban on flag “desecration” could never become law without literally changing the parameters of individual rights. The Supreme Court has twice ruled that destruction of the flag for political purposes, although offensive to many is undeniably political expression.

Congress has consistently opposed the amendment as well. Lawmakers have rejected the amendment four times in the past 14 years, most recently in March 2000.

Supporters of the amendment are undeterred, and they continue to claim nearly all veterans, and most Americans, want to restrict free speech. Even if this were true — which I don’t believe — the Constitution should not be altered based on majority rule. The First Amendment exists to protect all political speech, not just that which is popular. Dissent, especially in times of war, often needs the most protection.

In times of such domestic and international crisis, this amendment should not even be on the political radar: Flag burning is exceedingly rare in this country. The primary purpose of this amendment is election-year political pandering.

If lawmakers want to show support for veterans and U.S. troops, they could better spend their time resisting the anti-veteran measures proposed by the Bush administration.

For instance, the fiscal 2005 budget increases by nearly fivefold the out-of-pocket costs for veterans using the Veterans Administration medical facilities. The administration also has recommended reducing hostile fire pay and family separation pay for our troops. And in what the Army Times has called an act of betrayal, the Defense Department is considering closing commissaries and schools on military bases throughout the country.

Congress should take many actions to show respect for veterans. Infringing on the civil liberties they and all Americans hold dear should not be one of them.

Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and a former professor at the Navy War College and the Coast Guard Academy.

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