For the first time since 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified and added to the Constitution, Congress appears about to pass a constitutional amendment — not just a law — to the First Amendment, from which all our liberties flow. The Flag Desecration Amendment (S.J.R, 12) empowers Congress to prohibit any “physical desecration” of the American flag. I know there is a serious national deficiency in the education of our young on the Bill of Rights and the rest of the Constitution, but will Congress actually dishonor the First Amendment?
Last year, the House passed this desecration of the First Amendment
by an eight-vote margin. And on May 4, in a 6-to-3 vote, the Senate
Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution also placed the First
Amendment in jeopardy. If approved by the full Judiciary Committee,
it may be that only one or two votes on the Senate floor will keep
the First Amendment intact. Otherwise, this constitutional amendment
will go directly to the state legislatures for ratification.
The day before Flag Day last year, the Houston Chronicle underlined what we will lose if this amendment becomes law: “It makes no sense to set fire to the Bill of Rights to prevent a few people from protesting in a way that many find offensive. The right to speak our minds in public and engage in protest is at the core of our system of government. The only way to effectively desecrate the American flag would be to undercut the freedom for which it stands.” And Sen. Robert Byrd, who carries the Constitution in his DNA, speaks for James Madison across the centuries: “In the final analysis, it is the Constitution not the flag that is the foundation and guarantor of the people’s liberties.”
Among the many veterans opposing the Flag Desecration Amendment is Gary May, who lost both legs in Vietnam while serving with K Company, 3rd Battalion, 27 Marines. Last year, he said: “This amendment would not honor veterans; it would attack the very principles that inspired us to serve our country… We fought for a society free of repression and filled with open debate.” This year, on May 6, Mr. May added: “I did not lose my legs, and nearly my life, to protect a symbol.” Of all the personal stories by veterans against this attempt to change the Constitution to limit open debate in this country, the most powerful was by James Warner, who, during a previous debate, told of his imprisonment by the North Vietnamese from 1967 to 1973 after volunteering for duty there and flying more than 100 missions before being shot down. Refusing to accede to his captors’ offer to be released if he admitted this country had been wrong in Vietnam, Mr. Warner was tortured and spent 13 months in solitary confinement.
During one interrogation, an enemy officer gleefully showed Mr. Warner a photograph of Americans protesting the war by burning the flag.
“There,” the officer crowed, “people in your country protest against your cause! That proves you are wrong!” If only Congress and the president would listen to Mr. Warner’s answer to the rejoicing jailer: “No. That (photograph) proves I am right. In my country, we are not afraid of freedom, even if it means that people disagree with us. The officer was on his feet in an instant, his face purple with rage. He smashed his fist on the table and screamed at me to shut up. While he was ranting, I was astonished to see pain, confounded by fear, in his eyes. I have never forgotten that look, nor have I forgotten the satisfaction I felt at using his tool the picture of a burning flag against him.” The much-decorated Mr. Warner went on to serve in the White House as a domestic policy adviser to President Reagan during his second term, and is a recently retired corporate attorney. He will be one of the speakers on June 6 at a debate on the Flag Desecration Amendment in the aptly named First Amendment Room in the National Press Club in Washington.
Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment center, will be the moderator with debaters attorney Robert Corn-Revere (against) and Adrian Cronauer (for) the latter is national director of the Citizen’s Flag Alliance.
During the Vietnam War, my wife and I protested against it, but when we saw antiwar activists burning the flag in protest, we bought a flag and flew it outside our home to show those burning Old Glory that they utterly failed to understand that the flag speaks for the right of all Americans to speak freely. The year before, an angry Vietnam War veteran was once about to punch me on the nose for opposing the amendment until I quickly asked him: “What does the flag mean to you?” He paused. “Liberty!” he shouted, and walked away. That dimension of our liberty may soon disappear because, if the amendment becomes law all 50 state legislatures have already endorsed resolutions in favor of this amendment.
The only countries I know that punish the desecration of their flags are China, Iran and Cuba.
Do we want to join those dictatorships?