If we ranked national problems on a scale of 1 to 10,000, flag burning would be about a 2.
It's a bit more serious than the high cost of beluga caviar or the growing practice of putting ketchup on hot dogs. But it isn't quite as troubling as dope smuggling, street crime, cancer, rising health costs, the tax laws, or even mosquito bites, double parking, cat-hair allergies and post-nasal drip.
However, it is the nature of many politicians to seek the approval of those who believe our stability and greatness as a nation is threatened if some geek with skinny arms and a jiggly Adam's apple phones a TV station to announce that he will flick his Bic lighter at a Taiwan-made banner.
Since we already have a lot of dumb laws (Is Hugh Grant's sex life really any business of a cop or judge?), one more clinker can't do much harm. Even dumb laws serve a useful purpose by keeping lawyers busy, which makes them less likely to run for public office.
But if we are going to the considerable bother and hefty expense of messing with the Constitution to deal with a few flag-burning pests, we might consider following the examples of other nations that frown on such behavior.
Most countries don't have flag-burning laws, including such nationalistic societies as England, France and Japan. But I suppose that if you have had wars fought in your front yard, back yard and living room, you tend to shrug off minor irritants.
But there are countries that take protective measures for their flags, and we might seek their guidance.
In Poland, for example, flag burning and all sorts of other hard-nosed laws are lumped under a section called "Offenses Against Public Order."
Can anyone deny that what the U.S. needs is more "public order"? If so, you have weak eyes and can't hear.
The Polish public-order laws include these prohibitions:
"Whoever insults, damages or removes a publicly displayed emblem, banner, standard, flag, ensign or other symbol of the Polish state or of an allied state or the symbol of the international workers movement shall be subjected to the penalty of deprivation of liberty for up to 3 years.
"Whoever insults a monument or other work publicly displayed for the purpose of commemorating a historical event or to honor a person shall be subject to the penalty of deprivation of liberty for up to 2 years."
Statues, too. We could fill our prisons with the graffiti crowd.
"Whoever insults, damages or removes an emblem, a standard, a flag or an ensign of a foreign state, publicly displayed either by its representation or by order of a Polish state order, shall be subject to the penalty of deprivation of liberty for up to 3 years."
That's right. Not just their own flag, but flags of other nations. A Polish diplomatic officer explained: "We have these skinheads here. And they burn the Jewish flag. They have to be punished. And if we have a visiting foreign official and somebody insults his flag, they, of course, will be punished."
And that's not all.
The Polish laws also provide up to three years in prison for "whoever publicly insults, scoffs at or degrades a group of people or an individual person by reason of their race, ethnic or racial affiliation."
I really like that. Someone in a locker room says, "Hey, did you hear the joke about the Jewish . . ." and wham, three years in the clink.
Someone on the golf course says, "Hey, did you hear about the first African space program sending a man to walk on the sun?" Zap, three years behind bars.
And in Poland, it is against the law to broadcast insults to ethnic, racial and religious groups. So if we would adopt a version of the Polish patriot laws, we could lock up the executives at any TV station that shows old war movies that insult the Japanese, Germans or Apaches.
Poland isn't the only country that has laws against defacing flags or other national symbols.
So does Germany. I don't know why that doesn't surprise me.
And, finally, there is Russia. We called the Russian Embassy in Washington and asked if they had a flag-burning law.
The Russian sounded surprised that we had to ask.
"In Russia?" he asked. "Of course, we have that law."
So we might as well do it, too. If it is good enough for the easy-going Russians, it ought to be good enough for us.