A step backwards

My friend Wayne Smith called this week about the flag burning amendment. It scares him, as it should scare us all.

“It’s a disaster,” he says. “And it takes our minds off what’s really happening in this country.”

It does indeed. It’s one of those desperate American things that seem to come around when we hit a low point as a country and the real Americans feel the need to shore up their credentials.

Smith was a medic in Vietnam and came home to Rhode Island and straight into that long, dark post-Vietnam tangle of doubt and fear and public rejection.

He came out the other side to become an advocate for his fellow veterans and a lot of other people. He has worked the corridors of Washington, most recently with what he calls a “rag-tag group of vets” who want to keep the Constitution from being tampered with.

If you haven’t been watching or listening or reading, the flag burning amendment has moved dangerously close to messing with the Constitution and further restricting traditional freedoms. It has passed the House of Representatives. The Senate is expected to vote on it next week. One vote could make the difference.

Actually, it’s not called the flag burning amendment. “Desecration” is the official word. But desecration isn’t really defined in the amendment, which leaves a lot of scary flexibility should this really bad idea become the law of the land.

“It’s unnecessary, dangerous, even cynical,” said Gary May. “And it does nothing to further the cause of veterans.”

May is one of that “rag-tag group of vets” that Wayne Smith talked about. He and Smith go back a couple of decades in the veterans’ cause.

May lost both legs to a land mine when he was with the Marines in Vietnam in 1968. He came home to become a social worker, spending a lot of time with veterans and on such issues as Agent Orange. He now teaches social work at the University of Southern Indiana. And he helped organize Veterans Defending The Bill of Rights after testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on just how he felt about a flag burning amendment.

“We have about 5,000 members,” he said in a phone conversation from his home in Indiana. “We cut across all eras, all states.”

And they think the proposed amendment to make flag desecration a crime is not the kind of thing they signed up to fight for. To check them out, to get their suggestions on how best to contact your senator about the amendment, go to www.veteransdefending.org.

Most of us are offended to see the flag burned, stomped on, ripped apart. It is a crude piece of expression that seems to insult the ideal rather than any particular national failure. It has always seemed a cheap, theatrical, empty kind of protest.

But it’s a free and legitimate form of expression and it’s protected and it should stay protected. It is no threat to anything.

Because if this amendment passes the Senate and is approved by the required number of states, there is just no telling how it will be used or how far it will be taken to silence dissent.

The amendment is a sign of a frightened, divided time. It plays on fear. And it’s a slick, cynical diversion from a pile of grim failures that threaten to do far more damage than any kid with a flag and a Zippo ever could.

It is a huge step backward.

I will leave the final word to Gary May, the veteran, who’s got it coming:

“We didn’t serve for those who follow us to enjoy fewer freedoms than we did.”

(Bob Kerr is a columnist for The Providence Journal. E-mail bkerr(at)projo.com.)