Arson trial shouldn’t involve outside issues

Yale students are godless, flag-burning arsonists with no respect for liberty, freedom or the American way.

If you lacked proof before, you have it now: In the wee hours on Tuesday morning, three Yale students allegedly burned an American flag hanging from a porch at a stranger’s house. The students — Said Hyder Akbar, Nikolaos Angelopoulos and Farhad Anklesaria — were apprehended by the police within minutes and arrested on charges including two counts of first-degree reckless endangerment, third-degree criminal mischief, second-degree arson, breach of peace, and conspiracy to commit second-degree arson.

The three students in question took an act of constitutionally protected political speech that many consider highly offensive under the best of circumstances, and trivialized it by burning someone else’s flag, by night, with no intended audience. In doing so, they stripped the act of its political power, endangered a stranger’s private property, and made themselves look really stupid. They also got themselves thrown in jail and triggered an international media uproar.

All three students are foreign-born. Two are non-citizens. Bill O’Reilly is about to have a field day.

Like anyone, these three students should be held accountable for the immediate ramifications of an action that they committed of their own volition. But three larger pathologies will likely surface during their trial — and the inevitable media frenzy — making an objective judgment difficult to render and potentially implicating them as scapegoats for problems they did not cause.

First, America’s politicization of the flag-burning issue. The 1989 Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson protected the constitutional right to burn the American flag. Yet the most recent attempt to adopt a constitutional amendment banning desecration of the flag failed in the Senate by just one vote in 2006. Even so-called liberals like Hillary Clinton backed an alternative bill that would have made flag desecration illegal by law — preferable, in their eyes, to a constitutional ban, but still no resounding victory for civil liberties. Flag desecration has become a political showdown posing the valiant defenders of Old Glory against the defenders of the civil liberties the flag represents.

Second, America’s voyeuristic fascination with all things Yale. Over winter break, a San Francisco scuffle involving one of our a cappella groups and some local thugs became national headline news, and last year the University’s decision to admit Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, a former Taliban spokesman, as a nondegree student caused a pull-no-punches political brouhaha. For better or for worse, Yale news is national news. This is partly due to our country’s obsession with class, status, meritocracy and self-betterment, partly due to Yale’s history and eminence, and largely due to the fact that every U.S. president since the late 1980s has gone to school here.

Third, America’s post-9/11 flirtation with xenophobia. The Bush administration has spent the past six years convincing us to be scared of foreigners, especially foreigners with names like Akbar and Farhad. The military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the saber rattling on Iran, and more subtle policies — such as the restriction of academic visas after 9/11 and the continuing refusal to grant a fair trial to the enemy combatants detained at Guantanamo Bay — have sent a strong message: Non-Americans on American soil or in American custody, especially those of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, can expect to be treated as inferiors. I’m not sure if anyone named Akhbar or Farhad can get a fair trial in an American court.

All this raises the question: Would the flag-burning case make headlines if it involved two Canadians and an American? There is undoubtedly a strong symbolic difference between an American burning the flag and a foreigner burning it. This is rooted in the same hypocrisy that makes it OK for a Jew to tell a Jewish joke, but anti-Semitic for a Gentile to do the same. We want to care for and protect our own, and for this reason we feel entitled to judge our own — and resent when others do. It is this human urge that allows black comedians to spout the N-word like there’s no tomorrow but to launch a public shame campaign against Michael Richards when he used it in one particularly vile incident.

Please, Bill O’Reilly, resist this urge. When your writers get wind of this flag-burning incident, they are going to pounce. If they are doing the job they were hired to do, they will mock Yale as a safe haven for terrorists who hate America, and mock me as an apologist for these heathens.

So let the media circus commence. Roll out the show trial. Let justice be done. All I ask is that the three students in question be tried only for the crimes of which they stand accused, and not for circumstances beyond their control.

Daniel Weisfield is a senior in Calhoun College.

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