Week Thirty-Nine: How to Burn a Flag

It’s Independence Day next week; expect flags and fireworks aplenty. Given the proximity of so much freely flowing flammable fabric to freely flying firecrackers (not to mention over-zealous barbecue builders), I would imagine that there would be more than a few accidental flag-burnings. On such a highly charged day of patriotism, the sight of Old Glory going up in smoke would probably be enough to start a riot, or worse, a war. But you need not worry about what the Government or the FBI (Flag-Burning Inspectors) might do to you, because this week the Senate narrowly voted not to accept new measures, passed by the House of Representatives, that would make the desecration of the US flag a crime punishable by court of law. Phew, thank heavens for that! And I must say, as an ineligible-to-vote tax-payer, that I’m so happy the American tax dollars are being spent debating such a critical issue, when they could be spent on, say, a proper debate on Iraq, or a national health service. Or impeachment of the President.

What happens when you burn a flag? Those who have advocated the ban (such as the Citizen’s Flag Alliance) tell us that thousands of people have died defending that flag, and that to desecrate it would be akin to desecrating their graves. In reality they did not die defending a flag, but a country, and a set of values which, let’s be fair, the country’s Government did not always uphold. If you burn the flag, the country does not also burn; in fact, a country does not really need a flag to survive, but a durable and representative political and economic system. A flag is but a symbol; though I do not doubt the psychological power of symbols (cf, the swastika). In fact the act of burning the flag is upheld in American law, after a 1989 ruling, as an expression of every American’s First Amendment rights. So flag-burning is actually considered free speech. So what else can be interpreted as free speech? If you rob someone in the street, could your argument be, well it was free speech, officer, I was simply making a point about the high crime rate in this area, officer.

Of course not. But if the law had been passed, can you imagine the legal wrangling? For example, the exact proportions of the US flag are enshrined in law. It has to be just so. If the flag you are burning has a defect, for example if it were longer than it should be, or if the red stripes were a little thicker than the white, or if the shade of blue was just a little too dark, would it legally count as an American flag? It’s a foolproof legal defense; the evidence has by then already been destroyed. Yet until the 1989 ruling, many states actually did have laws regulating proper use of the flag – exactly when and how it should be flown (only from sunrise to sunset), exactly how it should be folded, that it should not be turned into a tablecloth or a cuddly toy, all of those things that millions of flag-loving Americans openly flouted after 9/11.

This doesn’t mean that come July 4th, Americans everywhere will be building huge bonfires and throwing their star-spangled banners onto funeral pyres, a Guy Fawkes in Uncle Sam’s jacket. But it means they get to. So I think that people should be aware of exactly how to burn a flag. First of all, don’t just get out a lighter and set it on the ground. You have to have some TV cameras there, and a crowd of people who just want to be on the telly. You let the flames get bigger, then wave it around at the camera, dancing like a drunk who has just found a six-pack hidden under a bench, and then you invite your friends to jump up and down on it until the flames go out (be careful not to burn your feet; wear old shoes). Then you sing some random nonsense about Satan or Santa, climb onto a car, then all go indoors for nachos, beer and the big game. I know this sort of behaviour will undoubtedly upset the neighbours, but hey folks, it’s your First Amendment right, sob sob, God bless the Constitution and all that. In fact, why not combine Amendments One and Two, and shoot the flag as well?

I’ve got the perfect way for the flag-protectors to get their way. Why don’t they just try to pass a law that states that all American flags should be made from flame-proof material? Everyone’s a winner!

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