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Flag Waiving

By Russ Smith | Posted 7/5/2006

Last week's spontaneous burst of hysteria in both the government and mass media was dispiriting, verging on disgusting. It's difficult to pinpoint just one example of public embarrassment, but let's start with the ludicrous debate in the U.S. Senate about two different bills designed to make desecration of the country's flag a crime. Fortunately, the electioneering politicians who voted for the measures--one called for an amendment to the Constitution, the other would merely lead to prosecution of offenders--were not successful; both bills barely fell short of passage.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) said June 28, after the amendment vote failed, "Old Glory lost today." Thank goodness, because that meant the First Amendment won. I think the U.S. flag is an important symbol and aesthetically more pleasing than those of other countries, but in reality it's a piece of cloth. It's offensive to many, myself included, when a citizen destroys a flag in public or private, but our democracy will not fall because of such an act.

Syndicated columnist Ben Shapiro, a young Harvard law student and ardent social conservative, was outraged at the legislative result. On June 28, he wrote, "Those who burn the flag are no less traitors than those who renounce their citizenship to fight with our enemies. . . . Protecting those who urinate, defecate, burn or stomp on our flag is not noble. Protecting our flag from such animals is not unimportant." Shapiro's view was echoed by a large number of Republicans, and some Democrats, across the nation, exhibiting a demonstration of sheer jingoism that borders on the contemptible.

It's not as if there's a current flag-burning fad. Even if such an activity was as commonplace as during the 1960s, I can think of far worse "animals" in our society. How about men and women who batter their spouses or children? What about the unscrupulous criminals who earn their living by selling lethal drugs to troubled people in almost every urban center? And, for that matter, the restrictionists who want to deport all illegal immigrants and keep the United States "pure" are far more dangerous than someone who destroys a flag.

Another Republican, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, provided one more example of politicians trying to divert attention from the real issues of the day-such as an overhaul of the antiquated Social Security entitlements, tax reform, and excessively punitive litigation by rapacious trial lawyers-by introducing an initiative that would tax pimps and prostitutes. Never mind the absurdity of IRS officials trying to prove the income of purveyors in this widespread business, or the continuing waste of police time in apprehending them. If prostitution were legal, just like gambling, the number of creeps who prey on unwilling young adults to increase their business would automatically drop.

I'm not a fan of The New York Times, a newspaper that lets its nearly psychotic antipathy to President Bush and his administration cloud its coverage of domestic and world news, but the bellicose reaction from conservatives last week after the paper published a story detailing a government anti-terrorism program was over the top.

A June 28 Times editorial, typically self-righteous, defended its "scoop," which was also reported by the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, and stretched credulity when it claimed, "As most of our readers know, there is a large wall between the news and opinion operations of this paper." That's not true, as any close observer of the paper can see. Regardless, Republican Rep. Peter King of New York called for the criminal prosecution of Times reporters, editors, and publishers on a June 25 Fox News talk show. "The time has come for the American people to realize, and The New York Times to realize, we're at war, and they can't be just on their own deciding what to declassify, what to release," King said. Bush didn't go that far, although he was clearly agitated, calling the story "disgraceful." Heather MacDonald, writing in the July 3 Weekly Standard, said the Times is "drunk . . . on its own power," and is a "national security threat." A June 26 National Review editorial advocated the revocation of Times press credentials because it has acted "irresponsibly."

It's understandable that conservative journalists and politicians are apoplectic over this latest Times story, considering its track record in covering the Bush presidency, but calling for prosecution or reduced access to the White House is ridiculous on two fronts. One, unlike other countries, the United States allows broad freedom of the press, no matter what the opinions. If readers don't like what the Times prints, they can cancel subscriptions and ignore its content. That's free enterprise at work. Two, and this is a more practical argument, can you imagine the sympathy the Times would enjoy if it were restricted in any way from doing the job as it sees fit?

I suspect the Times' excessive partisanship will do it harm, both journalistically and financially, but government intervention in its operations would be worse for the country, and the First Amendment, than the distorted worldview the paper presents every day.

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