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Growing up in the turbulent 1960s and ’70s, protests, some involving flag burning, occurred with some frequency. At that time, people felt their government leaders were lying to them. They were angry and their emotions were boiling over.
I was never comfortable with burning the American flag. Even as a young protester, burning the flag seemed the exact opposite of the point we were trying to make.
Most of us were saying that we loved our country and it was because we loved it that we expected more from our leaders. I always thought that we should have raised the flag high and let leaders know that this was OUR country.
As a young elected official, I remember being confronted with the issue. As the City Council was considering whether to pass some sort of law prohibiting flag burning, I turned to my dad for advice.
My father was a decorated disabled veteran of World War II. He fought under General Patton and in the Battle of the Bulge. As a result of his service, my dad had been blinded in one eye and had only partial use of one hand, among other lasting ailments. My mother told me that years after the war, my dad continued to fight in the trenches of his dreams.
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When I asked my father about the issue, his response caught me by surprise. Without much hesitation, he told me that he hated the idea of burning the flag, a flag he had fought for and under. But he said, “As much as I don’t like the idea, it’s what we fought for, the right of free speech.”
When I pressed him further, he said people burning the flag are trying to get our attention. “They want our attention. When they burn our flag, we should refuse to acknowledge them.”
With my father’s profound words still ringing in my ears, when the item came before the City Council, I opposed any rule to prohibit flag burning. I hated the idea, I really did, but I would never dishonor his service.
In 1984, a demonstrator outside of the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, burned an American flag. He was subsequently arrested, convicted and sentenced to a year in jail. That conviction was appealed and in 1989, the issue was decided by the United States Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, the Court found that flag burning was protected speech under the First Amendment.
Writing in concurrence, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:
“Though symbols often are what we ourselves make of them, the flag is constant in expressing beliefs Americans share, beliefs in law and peace and that freedom which sustains the human spirit. The case here today forces recognition of the costs to which those beliefs commit us. It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.”
Despite the high court’s decision more than a quarter century ago, flag burning remains a very sensitive subject. Similar demonstrations that abuse our national symbols also concern many citizens. I freely admit that I resent San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem — and I love it when his team loses. I consider it divine justice. But I think my father’s advice, that we simply ignore him and deny him the national platform that he seeks, is the best approach.
Recently, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that flag burners should face consequences, including possible loss of their citizenship or a year in jail.
Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2016
Suggesting the loss of citizenship is preposterous and Trump knows it. But, our “Tweeter-in-Chief” just loves to fire up his supporters. It should also be noted that loss of citizenship would also mean the loss of the ability to vote and properly express a protesters disapproval of government actions through the ballot box.
Actor George Takei had an interesting response. His tweet referenced his saluting the flag in a Japanese internment camp during WWII.
I pledged allegiance to the flag every morning inside an internment camp. I would never burn one, but I’d die to protect the right to do so. https://t.co/O5ecSQkyC2
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) November 29, 2016
I hate the idea of someone desecrating our flag. When they show it on the news, I often have to look away. It bothers me that much.
Reasonable people can disagree on how we should respond to those who would burn our flag or refuse to stand for the national anthem. Unfortunately, Trump wants to make America great again by undoing something that actually made America great in the first place: free speech.
Perhaps, rather than passing a law that infringes upon free speech, we should follow the example of Daniel Walker, a citizen who witnessed the 1984 flag burning that was ultimately the subject of the Supreme Court’s decision. Offended by the act, Mr. Walker collected the burned remains of the flag and buried them in his own backyard in accordance with military protocol. His patriotic act of respect received international attention and national acclaim.
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Respect for the flag and for other symbols of our great country should be important to all of us. We should teach that respect to our children at home and at school. But in my opinion, it would be a mistake to teach our children that we should punish someone just because he or she disagrees with us. Besides, Old Glory is more than strong enough to withstand the misguided actions of those who try to tear her down.
My dad is no longer with us. But, I honor his service and those of the millions of brave American men and women whose heroism and sacrifice have made this country free enough to allow those who hate us to say so.
Raymond V. Mariano is a Worcester Sun columnist. He is the former mayor of Worcester and former executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority. Ray grew up in Great Brook Valley and holds degrees from two city universities. He comments on his hometown every Sunday in Worcester Sun.