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Don't burn Constitution to save flag

By Nat Hentoff

As of this writing, Congress is on the edge — between Flag Day, June 14, and the end of the month — of passing the first ever constitutional amendment to our glorious Bill of Rights (ratified in 1791), which is unmatched anywhere in the world in its guarantees of fundamental personal liberties against the government. The Flag Desecration Amendment authorizes Congress to prohibit any "physical desecration" of the American flag — thereby carving out an exception to the First Amendment, from which all our liberties flow.

Last year, the House passed this desecration of the First Amendment by an eight-vote margin. And on May 4, in a 6-3 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, D-W.Va., — 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, Gary 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, Warner was tortured and spent 13 months in solitary confinement.

During one interrogation, an enemy officer gleefully showed 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 Warner's answer to the rejoicing jailer: "No. That 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 Warner went on to serve in the White House as a domestic policy adviser to President Ronald 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 Citizens 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 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?


Senate panel approves flag-protection amendment

House already has passed the amendment; assessments differ on how likely the full Senate is to pass it. 05.05.06

Panel spotlights uncertainties over flag amendment
By Eric Nelson National Press Club discussion, featuring speakers both pro and con, wrangles over definition of 'flag,' what constitutes 'desecration.' 06.07.06

Senate committee OKs flag amendment
Measure moves toward full Senate consideration this month; foes, supporters say it could be within one vote of passing. 06.15.06

Opposition to flag-burning amendment unites Senate leaders
Republican Mitch McConnell, Democrat Dick Durbin — each their party's second-ranking senator — say protecting free speech takes precedence. 06.26.06

The flag amendment: Reverence confronts reason
By Paul K. McMasters When we salute the flag, we salute our commitment to free speech and the right to protest. 06.04.06

Flag-burning horizon

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