We’ve been down this road before.
Americans love their flag. The Stars and Stripes has forever, it seems, been a symbol like few others.
“The flag is so sacred, which is exactly what a religious symbol is,” said Carolyn Marvin, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag.” “But people use it in different ways to mean different things.”
We salute it. Lower it to half-staff in sorrowful times. Drape it over the caskets of troops. It’s now a standard part of athletic uniforms. You can buy bikinis and boxer shorts that incorporate its motif.
That very love of the American flag has long made it a focus of protests, burned overseas for the perceived sins of Uncle Sam and at home by demonstrators for reasons that far outnumber the stars in a field of blue.
America’s president-elect thinks setting it ablaze should be a crime, sparking others, Marvin among them, to suggest doing so would torch the U.S. Constitution.
But Donald Trump’s early-hours tweet echoed recurring efforts to make the flag legally sacrosanct, an icon that someone could trample, burn or otherwise desecrate only at risk of jail.
In 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush campaigned for the White House by visiting a flag factory and calling for the outlawing of flag burning. Civil libertarians objected, citing the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. Burning a flag, they argued, is only offensive to the degree that it’s an example of protest, of speech.
When Bush took over the presidency in 1989, he called for a constitutional amendment protecting the flag from being defiled because, he said, “flag burning is wrong, dead wrong.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same year, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia voting with the majority, that flag burning was protected speech under the First Amendment.
A Democratic-controlled Congress quickly passed the Flag Protection Act. That law was ultimately ruled unconstitutional 5-4 by the high court in 1990. Efforts to amend the Constitution for flag sanctity never passed the U.S. Senate, much less the more difficult task of ratification by state legislatures.
Yet, decades later, Trump fanned the flames of flag burning with a tweet Tuesday morning suggesting that taking a match to the star-spangled banner ought to be done only at the expense of a year in jail or the loss of citizenship. (The Supreme Court ruled in 1958 that stripping someone of citizenship was unconstitutional “cruel and unusual” punishment.)
Trump’s Twitter declaration came, noted ABC News’ Katherine Faulders, about the same time morning show “Fox & Friends” aired a report of flag disputes at lefty Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where one flag was reported stolen and another burned.
Trump’s apparent push (his staff has not elaborated much on the meaning of the soon-to-be-president’s tweet) did not get a warm reception from establishment Washington.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, said the Supreme Court has made clear the Constitution protects even “unpleasant speech” and said he supports that position. That doesn’t bode well for a constitutional amendment — a tough political chore on any issue.
(Hillary Clinton, then a U.S. senator from New York, proposed the Flag Protection Act in 2005. It would have banned flag burning when it “intended to incite a violent response rather than make a political statement” and was touted as an alternative to the more radical move of amending the Constitution.)
Disputes persist about whether Betsy Ross should get credit for the national symbol. But in 1777, the Continental Congress first ordained it by resolving that “the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”
We’ve tweaked its particulars in the generations since and nurtured various ideas of what it stands for.
Historians say it’d be hard to trace the first flag burning. In modern history, the practice became a flash point during protests against the Vietnam War, American imperialism and the Cold War in the 1960s and ’70s, said Rebecca Miller Davis, a history professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who studies the 20th century and the civil rights movement.
Yet she said desecration of the flag can mean many things to the people who have burned it and other things to those who object to that form of protest. It’s commonly taken as disrespect, whether intended or not, for military sacrifice.
“People use this flag for whatever their purposes are,” she said. “The flag is a very unifying symbol, and it can also be a very dividing symbol.”
Divided we are.