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Monday, June 26, 2006

DESECRATING THE CONSTITUTION

Thousands of U.S. soldiers remain overseas fighting an increasingly unpopular war, and the American people want to hear something -- anything -- besides, "stay the course." Our country's southern border remains undefended and unattended, allowing millions of illegal immigrants unimpeded passage into the United States; they're undocumented and skirting a process that normally requires one to appreciate the U.S. for more than monetary reasons.

Tens of millions of Americans don't have health insurance. Taxes are going down, but not for those of us who get by on the bare essentials (thanks to the latest round of tax cuts, I may save up to $9.00 next year, around a 0.1 percent, while someone who makes millions will get upwards of 4-5 percent). Energy prices continue to rise, while nearly everyone now agrees that fossil fuels are damaging to our environment.

Education costs are going up and wages are stagnant. The government's retirement system that I have paid into for the last nine years (and will likely pay into for the next 39 years) isn't likely to be around when I need it. The national debt keeps going up, now standing at nearly $28,000 per citizen. People are getting too fat, outsourcing is taking American jobs, domestic companies are shutting down, long-standing foreign relations are crumbling apart and Osama bin Laden is still on the run.

Etc., etc., etc.

I could go on, but the point has been made: there are dozens, if not hundreds, of important, pressing issues facing this nation. We are at an unprecedented time in history; the United States can either continue in its role as global leader and standard bearer, with citizens working together to better life domestically and abroad, or we can stall the process with petty, stupid, partisan battles that only tear us apart and benefit one group: elite political party members only interested in perpetuating their own power and influence.

Given the options, you'd think that the labels, the slogans, the spin and the attacks could be put aside so that we might focus on the more important business at hand. But our leaders don't always make the best choices. Case in point: this week, the United States Senate will debate the issue of flag burning, or more specifically, amending our constitution to give Congress the power to ban flag desecration.

The proposed amendment reads as such:

The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.

This amendment, unsurprisingly brought up in an election year, is designed for one purpose only: to promote and secure the Republican majorities in the House and Senate. I'd be perfectly happy if the GOP could win majorities on their own merit, working to solve real issues that are affecting real Americans. But they can't, so they dig deep into their bag of patriotic tricks and throw this amendment into the face of the American people.

And it's nothing more than a political ploy, because of course people don't like flag burning. I don't like flag burning. I don't know anyone who actually supports the physical act of flag desecration. But at the same time, I've never seen a flag being desecrated, except by groups of foreign protestors who appear on a video loop on CNN.

Is this really such a pressing issue that our Senate (which is spending a record amount of time out of Washington, D.C. this year) needs to spend a week, or even a day, debating it? Of course not. The Citizens' Flag Alliance, one of the primary movers supporting the amendment, records incidents of stateside flag desecration in order to garner support for banning the practice; however, the CFA has recorded just four such acts in the entire country this year. There were 12 in 2005, and just three recorded acts of desecration in 2004. That's 19 recorded acts of flag desecration in the last three years ... out of 300 million people in the United States.

Hardly an issue that should sideline others.

Instead, this is red meat for an election year. Desperate politicians who realize they've done nothing with their last term in office are seeking a victory to take back home to the voters, and they're willing to wrap themselves up in the flag in order to do it. Congress has failed on immigration, the government doesn't know what to do in Iraq, the wealthy actually are getting better tax breaks, but our leaders in D.C. don't want you to realize that -- they want you to join with them in the one victory that most everyone can agree on ... protecting the flag.

Generally, it's conservatives and Republicans who push for such an amendment, with Democrats and liberals disagreeing. This year, a surprising 66 U.S. senators have signed on to the amendment, making it just one vote shy of passage. Those who vote for the amendment have an easy way to label themselves as patriotic ... those who vote against it (regardless of reasoning) are easily labeled anti-American and unpatriotic, which is understandably damaging in an election year.

It's also a chance for the GOP to rail against "judicial activism," since five Supreme Court justices decided in 1989 that flag burning was a form of free expression protected by our constitution. It's funny how court decisions are only labeled as "judicial activism" when politicians disagree with the decision that was made.

Don't be fooled by Bill Frist and Co.'s insistence that this amendment be the 28th added to our constitution; they don't care about the flag or free expression or judicial activism or any of the debate that will take place. They care about winning seats in Congress, and they're willing to put real issues on hold and play politics in order to do so, just like they did a few weeks ago when they attempted to pass a constitutional ban on gay marriage (another pressing issue, apparently).

Passage of this amendment would be a disastrous free pass for Congress to interpret it however they choose, and it would be an easy excuse for the executive to crowd in even further on our personal liberties. Why? Because the amendment leaves it up to Congress and future courts to define what a flag is and what desecration is.

Is a flag a 3' x 5' piece of nylon? Is it a shirt with stars and stripes plastered on the front? What about a red, white and blue cake, or star-spangled napkins? Because, in another attempt at patriotic fervor, Americans have gone flag crazy, the chances for possible flag desecration increase dramatically according to the language of the amendment.

If Congress didn't want you to wipe your mouth on a flag napkin, they could make it illegal.

You might find yourself in jail if you drop one of those cheap, 20-star paper flags handed out at a parade.

Maybe your American flag t-shirt is just a little too worn; one of those "activist" judges may not like how it was unwashed, or maybe even how it smelled. Desecration, then, would be in the eye of the beholder.

The amendment doesn't define what a flag is, and we can't leave that to a blind Congress and an overzealous executive to decide. Such ambiguity would ultimately lead to conservative judicial activism; an editorial from the San Diego Union-Tribune summed up the confusion nicely:

The amendment is an invitation to endless quarreling, in court and out, over what qualifies as desecration; that is, to treat as not sacred. You can bet some judges (and juries) would interpret this in absurdly broad fashion.

But looking past the political smokescreen, past the open-ended language that makes the amendment ridiculous to begin with, this proposal is a clear violation of the principles laid out in the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Free expression is part of that free speech, and so long as speech and expression do not violate the freedoms of others, we're free to say and do as we please. That includes purchasing and subsequently burning an American flag, as pointless and despicable as that might be. Free speech is always easy to defend when you agree with the speaker; it's much harder to defend when you disagree, but we have to be aware of those instances and not overreact.

Banning flag burning (or making flag desecration illegal) is a clear imposition on our freedom of expression and speech -- the very same speech that the flag supposedly represents. The U.S. flag stands for the ultimate in freedom -- speech, expression, religion and life -- and that includes the freedom to disagree with the U.S. government to a point where that same flag is desecrated.

It would be an oppressive and backwards act to ban flag burning. Only three other countries in the world currently ban flag desecration: Cuba, China and Iran. Oh, and Iraq did, too, before we deposed Saddam Hussein.

Do we really want to join such a club? What kind of message does that send?

Finally, it's not the flag that symbolizes America for me. I hate to see it burned, or thrown on the ground or stepped on or desecrated in any way. However, that flag isn't my country -- it's only a symbol; a revered one, to be sure, but certainly nothing sacred. My country is instead epitomized in our shared principles, our overarching philosophy and the freedoms our constitution guarantees and protects.

The flag isn't everything. Our ideals are.

Without the flag, we would still have our principles, our ideals and our country. But without our principles, we wouldn't have our stars and stripes. We need to continue to protect what really matters.

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