On Saturday, Military Intelligence Specialist Armin Cruz testified that he “ordered three naked prisoners to crawl along a concrete floor, handcuffed them and stepped on at least one of them,” according to the Associated Press. His conviction represents the second sentencing — the first of intelligence personnel — in connection with the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. As The New York Times observed in an editorial Tuesday, “After months of Senate hearings and eight Pentagon investigations, it is obvious that the Bush administration does not intend to hold any high-ranking official accountable for the nightmare at Abu Ghraib.” Faced with the executive branch’s abdication in the face of this desecration of the dignity of the flag, one might look to Congress for moral leadership.
Instead, the Senate is currently approaching a vote in the next month on a constitutional amendment, already approved by the House, to “prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.” This amendment, introduced this time by Senator Orrin Hatch, has been on the radical right’s wish list for years, rearing its head most often near those national observances when the flag is most prominent — like July 4 and Sept. 11. While the bill has never successfully cleared Congress, it has offered a wide brush with which to tar liberal politicians for lack of patriotism, and a convenient election year ploy for Republicans betting their stance on the flag will win over more voters than their record on the economy.
Senator Hatch is only the latest legislator to elide an affirmation of patriotism with suppression of dissent. This country’s flag — like those of others around the globe — has always had its highest ideals threatened by those who would protect it from the freedoms it enshrines. This country’s freedoms have always been endangered by those who declare them too sacred to be entrusted to its people.
The American flag bears the burden of a contested, contradictory legacy, in which there is much cause for pride and for shame. At its best, the flag as ideal challenges us to hold this nation to its best ideals and to safeguard and extend its promise. In so doing, we must confront the flag as symbol and the realities and policies over which it flies, or hides from view. In a robust democracy, we face the flag in a relationship less reverential than dialectical.
We don’t just wrestle over the flag — a sport on full display each election season — but we wrestle with the flag as well. We step into the chasm which divides the vision set forth by that flag from the reality playing out around us. In so doing, some choose to embrace the flag and carry it as a symbol of protest. Some choose to fly the flag upside down as a cry of distress. Some choose to wash the flag. And a few choose to burn it. Such a choice alienates potential allies and abrogates the opportunity to offer a positive, progressive alternative. But even as we debate whether that choice serves our democracy, we must recognize that such freedom is essential to it.
In his keynote to the Republican National Convention, Democratic Senator Zell Miller, a co-sponsor of the Flag Desecration Amendment, asserted to thunderous applause, “it is the soldier, not the agitator, who has given us the freedom to protest. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, serves beneath the flag, whose coffin is draped by the flag, who gives that protester the freedom he abuses to burn the flag.” It is perverse to appeal to the sacrifices made to defend our freedoms as grounds for narrowing them. It is shameful to erase the sacrifices made at home by generations of domestic agitators to demand, defend, and extend our freedoms. Among the many lessons those agitators passed to us is that threats to civil liberty at home too often approach as wars ostensibly for freedom are fought abroad.
Facing a similar amendment five years ago, Vietnam veteran and double-amputee Gary May testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, “It is freedom that will continue to keep [America] strong for my children and the children of all the people like my father, late father in law, grandfather, brother, me, and others like us who served honorably and proudly for freedom– The last thing I want to give the future generations are fewer rights than I was privileged to have. My family and I served and fought for others to have such freedoms and I am opposed to any actions which would restrict my children and their children from having the same freedoms I enjoy.”
It should come as no surprise in an era when flags are omnipresent — from neighbors’ doorsteps to newscasters’ lapels to the one our president was photographed autographing last year — that the momentum is stronger than ever for a political gambit that would seize on our fears and our flags and restrict our national freedoms in the name of protecting them. It falls to us, as it always has, to protect and push forward the freedoms and to make this country stronger not by narrowing the limits of criticism but by expanding the reach of freedom and opportunity.
Josh Eidelson is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.