Flag Burning is a Freedom That We Must Respect

Although the U.S. has sent Syrian rebels millions of dollars to help them overthrow President Bashar Al-Assad, a recent video showed these same rebels burning an American flag. The consulate attacks in Libya also involved American flag burning, as did recent protests in Pakistan, where, rather eerily, a protester died from inhaling the flag's fumes. The source of all this rage is the film Innocence of Muslims, which has led mobs around the world to protest harsh depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. 

While this rise in Anti-American sentiment is incredibly troubling, we must continue to protect free speech rights at home, particularly the right to burn the American flag. The flag may symbolize important American ideals but it does not embody them. We should allow protesters in our own country to continue to burn the flag since we need to protect individual liberties, provide a safe means for dissidents to express rage, and because it is better to defend the rights the flag represents rather than the piece of cloth itself.

The importance of individual liberty cannot be overstated: America was founded on these notions. After all, Puritans like Cotton Mather came to Massachusetts in 1620 to escape religious persecution. The same could be said of other groups like the Pilgrims, Jews, and Quakers, all of whom faced intense religious persecution in England. This persecution was very real. By 1680, to take one example, "10,000 Quakers had been imprisoned in England, and 243 had died of torture and mistreatment in the King's jails." 

Notions of individual liberty, of the right to worship and express ourselves are so fundamental to America's identity that they were highlighted in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which emphasizes that "congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Hence, troubling as some may find flag burning it is a privilege all but guaranteed by our founding fathers. The most recent Supreme Court case on the matter, Texas vs. Johnson, confirmed as much, overturning Gregory Johnson's sentence of one year in prison and a $2000 fine for dousing a flag in kerosene and setting it ablaze since the justices felt flag burning is symbolic speech, which the First Amendment protects. 

Burning the American flag can further be a relatively safe way to express rage. Many fringe groups have a pressing need to express discontent with various elements of our society. While few of us like to see our flag desecrated it certainly beats these radical groups or lone wolfs engaging in the kinds of mass shootings that dominated the news cycle this summer

In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill proposed the harm principle, which suggests that each individual should be allowed to act as he wants so long as those acts don't harm others. This seems pertinent when considering flag burning. So long as the burning of a flag takes place as part of a peaceful protest it does not violate Mill's harm principle, and, as such, should be tolerated.

Interrelated with the above idea is the suggestion by Ryan Martin, Ph.D. (in Psychology Today), that anger is a very distinct from aggression. While many of us tend to read the anger expressed through the burning of the flag as an act of aggression Martin's article seems to imply this is not necessarily the case. Flag burning can instead often be an outlet for frustrations, a way of actually staunching aggression — since the rage gets directed into the destruction of the flag rather than potentially far more toxic acts. Martin goes on to point out that most of us become angry when faced with situations we find inequitable and unjust. This seems the case with flag burning. It is quite often justly inspired by dissatisfaction with unfair governmental policies. To ban this outlet is to, ironically, ban a greater idea — the ideal that we should all have the right to peacefully express ourselves.

A third reason to allow the burning of the flag is we need to protect what the flag represents rather than the cloth itself. While many declare the flag a sacred symbol more flags can always be reproduced. 300 million dollars worth of flags are manufactured each year. A typical flag can be purchased for less than $20. Out of this blitzkrieg of American flag production it should be expected that a few flags will be desecrated. We should consider it a write-off and move on. After all American flag burnings have been taking place within our country for more than a hundred years without any great loss of national pride. Yet opponents of flag burning speak about it as if the protesters were destroying the national character and/or desecrating the one and only Mona Lisa.

What separates our nation from totalitarian states ruled by despots like Pol Pot, King Leopold II, and Adolph Hitler is the right to express dissent in a public forum in an effort to minimize government malfeasance. Hence, it seems less important that we protect the cloth and more important that we protect the right to protest, to express ourselves, and to keep our nation from turning into a massive genocide factory ruled by a madman in a funny hat.

Given these facts, any further attempts to pass a flag-burning amendment, such as the one that nearly succeeding in June 2006, seem misguided at best, unpatriotic at worst. Our founding forefathers liberated themselves from English rule by dumping tea into the Boston Harbor and demanding an end to an unjust taxation system. We should be granted the same privilege. Burning the flag needs to be allowed since it is a fundamental expression of our individual liberty, a healthy outlet for communal discontent, and because we need to defend what the flag represents rather than the cloth itself.