Exploit-the-Flag Day

Politicians will soon return to the mother of all stupid issues

It's baaaack!

The most ridiculous topic of our time can be expected to take center stage again in the next couple of weeks. Sound-bite-starved congressmen are preparing to mist up over saving Old Glory for the fourth time in the past 12 years.

Yes, it's flag-burning time again. Not time to burn a flag -- virtually no one does that anymore -- rather, time to protect the Stars and Stripes from those who aren't burning it, by enacting an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, no less.

Politicians have been shamelessly exploiting this issue since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 (Texas v. Johnson) that state bans on flag desecration were unconstitutional. No less a conservative than Justice Antonin Scalia voted with the majority, arguing that burning a flag "does not make it any less a symbol" of national pride and unity.

Scalia also wondered whether the special protection afforded the flag as a sacred symbol might also be granted to copies of the U.S. Constitution: "Well, how do you pick out what to protect? I mean, if I had to pick between the Constitution and the flag, I might well go with the Constitution."

Case closed, right?

Not a chance.

Somehow, no one can drive a stake through the heart of this political Dracula, which makes likes it's going to bite the First Amendment in the neck every couple of years, only to fly off into the distance like a bat. Now, courtesy of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) -- along with roughly 110 co-panderers in the House -- the bat is back, as blind to reason as ever.

Sources tell me that Cunningham's House Joint Resolution 36 -- now before the Judiciary Committee -- is expected to be voted out in the next two weeks so that congressmen can use July 4 as Exploit-the-Flag Day. Don't be surprised to hear about it this Thursday, however, on the original Flag Day.

HJR 36 would put the country through the extraordinary process of creating an amendment to the Constitution to create the following article:

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

St. Louis' own Rep. Todd Akin (R-2nd) is a beaming co-sponsor of the measure, as are Missouri Reps. Jo Ann Emerson (R-8th), Kenny Hulshof (R-9th) and Ike Skelton (D-4th). It's a fine bandwagon for politicians to hop onto -- earning them that "patriotically correct" seal of approval -- and it actually earned full House approval in 1999, only to die in the Senate.

Presumably the result won't be different this time, especially in light of the historic shift in power to the Democrats. But even if a companion measure shepherded by the ever-charming Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) never gets to a full vote, the Republicans figure to have succeeded in getting their flag-draped sound bites.

That's what this is about, after all: the sound bites. Never has a presumed hot-button issue had less substance, less justification or less of a constituency.

Flag-burning and other forms of "desecration" have never been a widespread practice in this nation and today are virtually extinct. In fact, the best way to encourage flag-burning would be to criminalize it, thus guaranteeing dramatic arrests with all their attendant publicity for aspiring protesters.

There's also the small detail that making a piece of symbolic cloth sacrosanct flies -- at full mast -- in the face of First Amendment freedom of speech. Is unpatriotic speech no longer to be tolerated in America?

The last time this nonsense was visited on us was March 1999, when none other than Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) was positively frothing about how he was going to save our flag in his role as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution. He proudly made it "the first piece of legislation marked up by the subcommittee."

Ironically enough, key testimony against the ban on flag desecration came at that time from one of Ashcroft's current Cabinet-mates. That would be Secretary of State Colin Powell, who wrote in response to a request for his views by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont):

"I understand how strongly so many of my fellow veterans and citizens feel about the flag and I understand the powerful sentiment in state legislatures for such an amendment. I feel the same sense of outrage. But I step back from amending the Constitution to relieve that outrage.

"The First Amendment exists to insure that freedom of speech and expression applies not just to that with which we agree or disagree, but also that which we find outrageous. I would not amend that great shield of democracy to hammer a few miscreants. The flag will be flying proudly long after they have slunk away.

"Finally, I shudder to think of the legal morass we will create trying to implement the body of law that will emerge from such an amendment."

Most likely there won't be a need for shuddering; Washington politicians seem content to fail in this mission. Flag "protection" is a handy rallying point for fiery nationalism -- craved in the post-Red Menace era -- and the issue only has real utility as long as it's unresolved.

But it shouldn't have to come to this every two years or so.

Not in America.

Not under this flag.

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