Burning the flag is a fundamental freedom | Will Saunders

Growing up, I used to argue with my dad all the time. Whatever it was about, I’d feel the rising of that teen anger at what seems such inexplicable injustice. I’m ashamed to say (though I’m confident that I’m by no means alone in this) that, on occasion, I lashed out, and tried to hit him. A trained martial artist, he could have obliterated me; he could have reduced me to little more than a few specks of skin on the floor. But he didn’t. No, no matter how hard my adolescent fists rained down against him, he never did anything more than parry them away, resolute in his belief that I would always respect him more for constraining the anger and frustration he must have felt.

Years later, he has been proved right: the restraint he showed in those moments forms the basis of an unsurpassable respect I feel for him, for rising above my petty violence, and teaching me that the greatest strength lies within.

This is somewhat analogous, I feel, to the debate about the legality of flag-burning, which has been jolted back into life by President-elect Trump’s tweet suggesting he would ban it. Legally illiterate (the Supreme Court affirmed in 1989 that flag-burning is protected by the First Amendment), it also represents a far greater threat to the integrity of the Stars and Stripes than any posed by Che Guevara-worshipping students from Vermont deciding to burn it.

The United States is the only country in the world founded upon an idea: freedom. The Founding Fathers envisaged a society in which government existed, above all else, to protect the rights of the individual. The First Amendment was drafted with the aim of enshrining for every individual the eternal, inalienable right to express their conscience, no matter how much it offended that of others. It is this commitment to freedom of speech, expression and conscience that embodies the very bedrock of Western democracy, and the United States has been a pioneer of projecting these most human of values into parts of the world yet to achieve them.

The United States is the only country in the world founded on an idea: freedom

And it is for this reason that flag burning must, so long as the United States wishes to be considered the continuing home of freedom, remain legal. Nations have culture, traditions, heritage – but above all else, they must confer rights, and the United States confers upon its citizens the right to express themselves in whatever nonviolent way they see fit. Of course, burning the flag of the country that keeps one safe at night is a reprehensibly disrespectful act, but the victory for that country, and for its flag, comes through its continuing commitment to rising above the vitriol of its citizens.

The late Antonin Scalia, former Supreme Court justice and lifelong conservative, explains why flag burning must remain legal.

Prosecuting those who marry flame and flag would diminish the latter. It would no longer be the long-suffering bastion of liberty, but instead the victim of a reactionary capitulation to tit-for-tat emotion. There is a beautiful and condemning irony in the act of burning the Stars and Stripes, in that it is to desecrate the symbol that represents one’s freedom to do so. So long as it remains legal to burn the flag of a free country, it remains an act of monumental hypocrisy, and we should not allow those who partake in it to shed this mantle so easily.

Like the parent assaulted by their selfish child, the Stars and Stripes takes whatever juvenile hatred is hurled at it, because, like the parent, it has the wisdom to be the bigger party. It knows that the freedom it embodies is greater than any petulant idiocy it must endure. It knows that respect is earnt, not forced, and that to respond to the blows against it with the infinitely greater force it represents would be an unforgivable descent to the reactionary and primitive hatred it exists to oppose. Like my dad, it knows it is bigger, and it knows it is better.

There’s something else in the symbolism as well: a clash of constrained peace, and hedonistic violence. By simply absorbing the massive disrespect inherent in its arson, the flag demonstrates itself – and, by extension, the authority of the Constitution – to be the symbol of peaceful order, as opposed to the destructive chaos encapsulated by the fool who set the fire. The Stars and Stripes remains a beacon of freedom around the world, precisely because it is the flag that tolerates its critics. Indeed, a flag that represents a commitment to freedom so unswerving it will allow itself to be burnt is a far more inspirational and persuasive symbol than a flag that must bite back, which, in turn, looks both repressive and insecure.

To ban the burning of the flag would give succour to those who set this fire. Their act of tremendous disrespect would no longer be pathetic and immature, but instead revolutionary. Value lies in victimhood, and the burning flag remains the victim – but only until its attacker is wrestled to the ground and cuffed. History teaches us thus that the destination of respect is not the attacker, but the attacked who rises above. When foolish teenagers attack and ridicule the freedom so many millions have died for, our response must thus be to keep smiling back with more of it.

Will Saunders is a third-year student of Politics at the University of Sussex, and the editor of The Mallard.

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