Liberty dearer than symbolic flag

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ONE FINE summer morning the guy next door cut down his ponderosa pine tree, our neighborhood symbol, flag and flagpole in one God-given weld.

As stumped as the tree, neighbors raged and pouted. Others didn't notice or didn't care. After a few days, everyone forgot the tree had ever sprouted there. We went back to tending the trees in our own yards.

About the same time, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment banning flag burning. The measure must hurdle the Senate with a two-thirds vote to succeed, plus legislatures in 38 states within seven years. A majority of senators reportedly now lean toward passage, but not the necessary 67. Holdouts base their stands on the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

Like the flag, the Senate is a symbol of our country. It too stirs up hornets. Someone may doodle horns on a picture of his senator and tack him up on a bulletin board. Someone else pulls him down from the board and burns him.

All this childishness falls under the protection of one more American symbol, the Constitution. Undoubtedly, there are people who incinerate copies of the Constitution, too. The flag is the more common object of hatred only because jerks recognize colors better than they read words.

What's important isn't the exact type of tinder but the freedom our country stands for. Free will needs a choice, like owning your own tree and being able to do anything you want with it, even if that choice involves ingratitude and childishness.

The Supreme Court issued rulings in 1989 and 1990 calling flag burning a form of protected political speech. Public outrage about the Supreme Court decisions died down, like my neighborhood's outrage over the downed tree. But now the only way to ban flag burning is by constitutional amendment.

While they're at it, they could ban childishness and maybe even jerks. I might be banned from criticizing a senator. Someone might consider me a jerk.

I'm glad that, as things stand now, people tell me when I'm off base rather than trying to send me to jail. So that's what I've been doing when I see disrespect for the American flag -- I've been exercising my free speech rights by politely telling people I don't like it.

I did that this past winter when a Christmas tree merchant in my home town cordoned off part of a parking lot. From his rope hung small American flags. The rope was supported at the corners by metal poles, except at one corner where he pinned the rope to the pavement with a huge rock, forcing some flags onto the ground.

I approached the tree salesman and quietly told him that it's disrespectful to let the flag touch the ground. He said, "Thank you," and by the next day he had found a pole to replace the rock.

Another time I noticed about 60 American flags strung high above a car dealer's lot. About a third of the fabric on most of them had blown away, leaving remnants that resembled the outline of the state of Iowa. Some of the flags sported foot-long tails of tatters that flapped in the wind.

I mentioned the problem to the dealer. Three weeks later, I talked to him again. Still no results. So I called the company that owns the shopping center where the dealer is located. I was getting ready to write the Chamber of Commerce and the newspapers when the flags were replaced with intact ones.

I wouldn't want these businesses to be punished by the government for their disrespect of the flag. I'm not even sure they intended disrespect. If they had, then yes, I would want them to lose business. All of us who didn't like the situation could boycott them. And anyone who didn't care could go ahead and buy.

The flag is, after all, only a symbol like my neighbor's pine. No matter how much we loved it, the tree was the neighbor's concern. With all of the violent crime and serious theft in our country, is the United States going to put energy into banning ingratitude and childishness that social pressure alone could keep to a minimum?

A constitutional amendment would likely cause an explosion in flag burnings and borderline incidents like burnings of paper pictures of flags.

Could the amendment be enforced without tyranny?

If America bans flag burning, we won't need the flag anymore, because we won't be free.

Genie Dickerson writes from Bellevue, Washington.

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