Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Flag burning, free speech and thanking veterans

When I was in high school, I participated in competitive speech. I favored extemporaneous speaking and oratories more than debating. The closest I ever got to debate was student congress where we would write and present bills, debate them and put them to a vote that was binding to no one and meant absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things.

I sat in on a meeting for the debate competition once. The topic to be debated was flag burning. I was not aware, prior to the meeting, that we would be required to come up with arguments for both sides of the issue. Naive patriot and budding narcissist that I was, I could not bring myself to argue for both sides of an issue that I personally felt very strongly about. I decided that debate wasn’t for me and I would stick to categories that I was more comfortable with.

As I’ve matured and gained experience, I’ve learned to be more open-minded and listen to the ideas and opinions of others with varied backgrounds and ways of thinking; as a result, my views on numerous topics have evolved—and will most likely continue to do so.

From time-to-time the topic of flag burning comes up in the media. Conversations among friends and co-workers on the subject have migrated from the water cooler or break room the next day to various social media platforms in near real-time. The hashtag helps people to both keep their shared opinions on-topic and participate in what’s “trending.”

It’s fascinating to see the differing opinions as I scroll through news feeds. Calls for criminal consequences and loss of citizenship for flag-burners gets a lot of play—free speech and Supreme Court precedent be damned, apparently. Another thing that I find interesting are the inferences that are made by the act. A protestor may burn the flag to protest any number of perceived injustices ostensibly committed by the government. Said protestor may very well preface their act with a clear statement articulating precisely what they are protesting. Regardless of the reasoning shared by the protestor, they’re purpose for the protest is overshadowed by the act itself. Once that ensign is set on fire, most people don’t see someone protesting an injustice. They just see someone who “hates America.”

Flag burning is a feckless way to bring attention to any cause. Nobody cares about what one might be protesting—even if it’s a completely legitimate complaint that effects everyone equally—if one chooses to focus their act of protest on a revered symbol. The “desecration” of the emblem will be the headline, not the injustice that inspired it. And the people who set flame to fabric get labeled “commie rat jerks” and/or are accused of symbolically spitting on “our heroes.” i.e. military veterans.

One statement in particular that stood out to me read, “Burning the American Flag is a hate crime against veterans.”

As a veteran myself—as well as a member of an ethnic minority—I found this statement to be somewhat hyperbolic. When I think of a “hate crime,” my thoughts turn to acts of violence committed directly against members of minority groups motivated solely by the fact that the victims are members of minority groups.

I don’t know if flag burning can be considered an act of violence toward any person or group—ethnic, religious, civic or political. An act of protest? Obviously. An act of defiance? Sure. An act specifically intended to offend others? Maybe, but protesting, being defiant or even offensive aren’t hate crimes. Regardless of the motivation behind it, flag burning is not a criminal act. Laws have been passed to criminalize flag-burning and those same laws have been struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional as per The First Amendment—thus invalid and unenforceable.

When I served in the United States Navy, I took an oath to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution which means that my job was to protect the constitutional rights of my fellow citizens including their right to express themselves however they want.

If a U.S. citizen chooses to express themselves by burning a tangible symbol—be it a flag, relic or icon—they are exercising a right that I helped to protect. I may not agree with their sentiments, politics or even the way they choose to express themselves, but I also can’t square taking offense for something I swore to defend, to say nothing of trying to take away someone’s constitutional rights through criminalization of a symbolic act of self-expression.

Frankly, if there’s anything that I find offensive as a veteran, it’s the apathy of people who refuse to exercise their rights at all. To speak, to vote, to participate in social discourse.

It seems to me that since 9/11, it’s become in vogue—upon learning of someone’s status as a veteran—to say, “Thank you for your service.” I personally don’t care to be verbally thanked for my service. I volunteered and did my job but I don’t put on any airs about my time in the military. I wasn’t very good at keeping up with all the required decorum and was a “model” sailor only in the sense that a model is a cheap imitation of an original. When the opportunity to reenlist presented itself, I thought it best not to.

Photo credit: TheodoreWLee
via / CC BY-NC-ND
If Americans want to thank veterans for their service, they shouldn’t just say it. They should show it. They should do something, like exercising the rights all veterans served to protect, and not try to take those same rights away from others over a difference of opinion. If Americans want to sincerely honor veterans, they should support legislation that actively helps veterans in need of housing, healthcare and employment. Among the adult homeless population, 11% are veterans. Americans who want to truly thank their veterans should vote into office public servants that understand that when active military service ends, veterans still need and deserve the support of their country and its citizens.

Vocally thanking a veteran for their service means nothing if all one does afterward is take offense at flag-burning and then vote into office politicians who are just as vocal in their outrage over symbolic acts as they are their moral support of veterans while surreptitiously backing legislation to dismantle programs that exist specifically to help those same veterans.

(revised February 25, 2017)

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