Fires of True Patriotism

THERE are, broadly speaking, two interpretations of the generally low rate of participation in American elections. One school of thought holds that Americans don't vote in the numbers they should because of a fundamental weakness in their society - a tendency to exclude from the public process, through red tape and other means, the less fortunate, the less powerful, and those who would change the status quo.

The other school holds that low voter turnout is a perverse sign of strength, a mark of triumph for the American experiment. The citizens, in this view, are essentially satisfied with the status quo, and feel they can afford to stay home on election day, as citizens of other, more troubled lands dare not.

The voter participation issue somehow keeps coming to mind as the great flag-burning controversy waxes on.

For those convinced that the best protection for the flag lies in the hearts of the people, rather than in their fire extinguishers, the flag flap, too, lends itself to two interpretations. On one hand the furor can be seen as a sign of weakness, of lack of political will to take on the tough issues of the time. On the other hand, one can say that only a nation with its situation pretty well under control can afford to indulge in this kind of silliness.

On the voting issue, I am open to persuasion from the second school of thought.

But on flag burning, the first interpretation is all but inescapable.

For those of you who have just joined us: The Supreme Court has recently ruled unconstitutional a federal law outlawing desecration of the American flag. The legal reasoning is that flag burning as a protest is a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

And so now the talk on Capitol Hill is that the Constitution must be changed. ``There are no options left,'' Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas said the other day. ``It's either do nothing or have a constitutional amendment. I think we ought to do something.'' Pollsters report huge majorities of the public supporting this view.

But the whole discussion is wrongheaded: Yes, burning or trampling on such a potent symbol as the American flag is offensive to those of us who think of ourselves as deeply patriotic. (And we can't accept that any political party has a corner on patriotism. We have to wonder, how did the Democrats ever let themselves get put on the defensive on patriotism as they did in the 1988 election? How did they let themselves be cast in the role of a special-interest party, with an agenda somehow ``un-American''?)

Much that is offensive, however, is still not illegal because of the larger costs of government intrusion into individual behavior.

It's bad enough that situations like the drug crisis lead well-meaning people to consider abridgment of civil liberties in the name of fighting off grave danger.

But is the flag in danger? Have there been any banner-burnings in your neighborhood lately? And if so, is the situation serious enough to warrant amending the Bill of Rights? The Constitution has been amended only a couple of dozen times in 200 years, and after the first 10 amendments, which make up the Bill of Rights, subsequent changes were largely for what we might call housekeeping details, such as amending procedures for presidential succession. And the Bill of Rights itself has never been amended.

After all, some who would burn the flag may be protesting not the ideals for which it stands but rather the degree to which their country has fallen short of those ideals.

During the student protests of a couple of decades ago, Old Glory was sometimes flown upside down, to the consternation of the elder generation, who saw this as a mark of disrespect. The students, however, knew the inverted flag to be an international distress signal at sea. At a time when so many were at sea, in another sense, the upside-down banner was an eloquent symbol of distress - a symbol they wouldn't have used if it didn't have considerable power for them.

How much easier to make a federal case, literally, of the handling of a certain yardage of bunting than to put into practice the American ideal, with its delicate balances of equality and liberty, of individual and community.

Justice William Brennan said it best in his opinion for the Supreme Court: ``Punishing desecration of the flag dilutes the very freedom that makes this emblem so revered, and worth revering.''

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