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Emotions Are Burning, but the Flag Is Fine

EVERYONE knows the story of the boy who cried wolf. So often did he utter a false alarm that when a real threat appeared, no one responded. Such may be the fate of our freedoms if politicians don't stop playing patriot games.

There is a new flutter of activity surrounding a proposed constitutional amendment that would enable Congress and the states to prohibit "physical desecration" of the American flag.

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Despite the fact that the full House rejected a similar amendment in 1990, it came up again last week, cleverly timed before the 4th of July holiday. This time the amendment passed 312 to 120.

But is this an appropriate gift to mark our country's birthday? Or is it just a firecracker, destined to go up in smoke?

Opinion on the flag-burning amendment is, as usual, inflamed. Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, claims the issue is crucial because it represents a "protest against the vulgarization ... of our society." The flag stands for national unity; it is not made for burning.

Equally heated views are voiced by the opposition. Rep. Robert Scott (D) of Virginia says the amendment is unnecessary. The flag and that for which it stands "do not need protection from an occasional imbecile who does not understand that he is burning the symbol of his right to protest." The Supreme Court seems to agree. Five years ago it struck down flag-burning laws. Burning one's own flag, however reprehensible, is an expression protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.

An amendment will only ignite further conflict. The ease with which this Congress tosses around amendments would make one think it is simple to pass one. By design, it is not. Ratification requires a two-thirds vote in the House, Senate approval, and the backing of 38 state legislatures. That may be why the Constitution has had only 27 amendments. Yet this year alone, amendments pertaining to a balanced federal budget and congressional term limits were defeated.

No other Congress, except the first, has proposed more than one constitutional amendment. After more than 200 years, the 104th Congress should leave well enough alone.

An amendment is too drastic a remedy to be grabbed for every problem. The flag doesn't need special protection, because very few people want to destroy it. Since 1990, there has been an average of fewer than eight incidents a year. Why go through so much trouble to prohibit something that is not even happening?

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At a time when the average American citizen is skeptical about government's ability to get things done, why fritter away hours on another unnecessary amendment? Since we face so many more pressing problems, this quibling undermines the very principles our flag embodies.

In reality, we already tolerate indignities to our flag. A flag used in an advertisement, a flag on the seat of one's pants, a flag left out in the rain - all violate not only our flag's code, but, when we stop to notice, our own sensibilities.

Most of the time, however, we don't mind, because we understand that our country is more important than its symbols and can endure occasional human wear and tear. We accept these breaches because of the strength of our trust.

Respect for the flag can and should be cultivated because it is a representation of our national self. To this end, children should learn the basic rules of honor, and adults should reinforce them through example.

In addition, we should remember that the flag is only the material expression of a profound identity that cannot be contained or contaminated through any single object. We are not so fragile that the rending of a thread can unravel our entire social fabric.

When a flag is no longer fit for display, it is customarily destroyed in some dignified way, preferably by burning. The flag-burning amendment should be similarly put to rest so that we can turn our attention to the vital problems that confront the nation, over which our flag proudly waves.

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