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Why the flag?

Today is Flag Day. It comes at a time when Congress is contemplating a

Not since the turbulent 1960s has there been so much concern expressed over the burning of the American flag as an act of either extreme enmity or just plain disgust with the actions of the nation for which it stands.

As TV's Marshal Matt Dillon was wont to muse when such mischief, if not malevolence, was afoot in Dodge City, it makes a man watchful.

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It should also alert authority to the possibility the perpetrators of such deliberate outrage might be sending desperate signals that need to be addressed without prejudice for the medium of communication employed.

Why the flag?

Simply because the burning of that particular piece of cherished cloth in an act of nonviolence carries as much significance in regard to the extreme passion of the message as sacking an embassy or throwing a bomb.

It says: We know how much this means to you, so pay attention to us!

It should be considered meaningful that dissidents and others who engage in flag-burning are for the most part not out to overthrow the government of the nation for which the honored emblem stands. In most such instances, the arsonists are only expressing outrage and/or frustrated conviction that the much heralded principles and promise that the flag represents are not being upheld or honored in regard to their particular individual or collective concerns.

A frustrated, misunderstood child might, in the face of extreme authority, smash a beloved toy in a similar effort to get attention or a fair hearing.

Authority often too hastily misinterprets dissension and moves to squash it with force or laws and regulations that could well make a villain or a criminal of a virtuous, however zealous, patriot.

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In this regard it was ascertained by interviewers probing the motives of students protesting in Beijing's now infamous Tiananmen Square that the students weren't defying the Chinese Communist government in an effort to change the system -as might have been hoped and even reported by many - but only to have a voice in the system.

As one Chinese girl wistfully explained to a reporter before the guns and tanks of the paranoid Chinese military regime were turned against the unsuspecting students: "I just want a pretty life."

Paranoia over superheated conviction in regard to flag-waving or flag-burning passion can be unforgivably ignoble. Torching such a revered symbol as a national flag is admittedly a drastic way of calling attention to grievous concerns, but the US flag has always been employed as a message of one sort or another. It has been flown upside down to signal trouble, raised defiantly to signal conquest, flown at half staff to signal grief, and always flown proudly to signal freedom, promise, and hope.

If the burning of a revered banner, even in a zealot's cause, might allow those to whom such a dramatic message is being sent to see ourselves as others see us - as the poet Burns thought worthy of effort - the game might sometimes be worth the candle. Especially, if in the seeing, the reprehensible act might spark the righting of wrongs, correction of misconceptions, heed to sincere voices.

Once in New Guinea, a small American flag affixed to a jeep in which I was riding broke loose from its fender mooring and fluttered to the earth in front of a Japanese prisoner of war on the grounds of a military compound. The jeep was brought to a halt, and of an almost breathless moment everyone was transfixed - The Flag was in the dirt at the feet of an enemy. Then, the Japanese soldier bent, picked up the American flag, lowered his eyes in deference to his captors, and held it respectfully draped across his outstretched hands until a US sailor left the jeep and retrieved it.

It was the most memorable, singular act of respect for the American flag I've ever witnessed. There was no mistaking the fact that the soldier understood what this symbol of our nation meant to us -just as the passionately dedicated who resort to incineration also know the significance of the flag to the national psyche.

In inviting such predictable censure at the method employed to raise an alarm, those who so resolutely sacrifice the cherished medium they've made their message might be forgiven their rashness when calling attention to just causes.

*Forest L. Kimler is a veteran reporter who covered Asia in war and peace for 17 years. He lives in St. Augustine, Fla.

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