WASHINGTON — Occasionally an issue arises that causes me to lose my commentator's cool. Such is the controversy that has bubbled up in recent days over whether the flag-draped coffins arriving from Iraq and Afghanistan may be shown by the news media.
"No," says the White House, it's a matter of "privacy" and "sensitivity." No issue of privacy or sensitivity arose when a Bush campaign commercial showed a flag-draped firefighter being carried from ground zero in New York.
The Stars and Stripes occupies a unique role in American life, a symbol of national unity for a republic without a crowned head. The symbol is embodied in our national anthem, which found reassurance in the fact that after a night-long battle during the War of 1812, "our flag was still there."
The millions of flags that sprouted from lapels and car fenders after the 9/11 assault were tokens of unity in adversity. But the flag has also been used for commercial and political purposes, and few are the candidates whose stump speeches are not set against a huge flag.
So now the matter of the flag-draped coffins and whether showing them is a solemn tribute or a violation of privacy.
The Pentagon has reinforced its ban after several hundred pictures escaped to someone who had filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act. And a cargo handler has been fired by a military contractor for furnishing pictures to a newspaper.
Considering that no individual identification is visible in the pictures, it is hard to understand the justification for clamping the secrecy lid on the solemn procession of flag-draped coffins being carried off the cargo planes. I cannot avoid the suspicion that President Bush - who has yet to attend a funeral service for any of the honored dead that he sent to war - has no interest in calling attention to the mounting number of casualties in a battle that was far from over last May 1, when the president declared "major combat operations" in Iraq had ended.
I can see no other reason to screen from public view the daily arrival of the remains of those who have made the supreme sacrifice.
• Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst for National Public Radio.