Waving the Flag

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks by Muslim extremists on September 11, 2001, there was a concern that Americans might vent their anger upon innocent Muslim-Americans. Save for a modest number of individual cases, Americans have not lashed out against their Muslim neighbors. To their credit, the political leadership of both political parties has publicly denounced such indiscriminate vengeance. Certainly, there are no internment camps like those for Americans of Japanese dissent in World War II. Nonetheless, Comedian Chris Rock suggested that if he were a Muslim after September 11, he would dress up like stuntman Evel Knievel, covered in the stars and strips in a hyper-patriotic display.

Rock’s comment was made in jest, but it contains a kernel of wisdom. The personal display of the American flag has become a political symbol. If one observers those lapel flag pins, little flags attached to car antennas, or any of the other ubiquitous flag displays, it is possible to leap unafraid to the conclusion that the displayer supports the President in his potential use of military force to compel Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq to comply with UN resolutions and disarm. This correlation should not be the case. It should not be possible for one part of the political spectrum or one side of an issue to commandeer this American symbol so easily and implicitly associate one position as the “patriotic” one. The loyal opposition must be perceived as “loyal.”

However, the political Left and the anti-war movement has largely eschewed patriotic symbols. Indeed, some on the Left are beginning to refer to conservatives confident of America’s ability and duty to deal with Iraq as “flag conservatives,” further distancing themselves from this symbol. Are these groups saying they are not proud to be Americans? Is their opposition to the war born out love or hate of America? A cursory examination of the web presence of some anti-war groups like A.N.S.W.E.R, Move On, Win Without War, Vote No War, Anti-War.com, United for Peace and Justice, and Not in Our Name shows that only Win Without War has embraced the American flag as a motif. United For Peace has a flag on its home page claiming that patriots are against the war too, but the notion appears there only as an incidental side note.

The display of the flag does not prove patriotism, nor is the lack of a flag a token of anti-Americanism. Nonetheless, if these groups wish to make clear the pro-American roots of their critique, they have an additional positive obligation to seize upon American patriotic symbols like the flag. Their protest placards should be plastered with the stars and stripes. American flag patches ought to be worn on protestors’ shoulders. The dominant colors ought to be red, white, and blue. Small American flags should be in every hand. No one should be able to photograph an anti-war protest without a respectfully displayed flag falling within the frame. Unfortunately, it is probably the case that many in these groups would feel uncomfortable with such displays.

A small incident in La Habra, California illustrates the problem. Residents along Whittier Boulevard had constructed a make shift memorial for the victims of the terrorist attacks on September 11. Since then, local volunteers have maintained the memorial. Flags festooned the memorial to celebrate our unity in sorrow for those who lost their lives, not as a particular political statement. Early this month a group of anti-war Leftists vandalized the memorial, which is located on private property, and replaced the flags with anti-war signs. Tracey Chandler who had helped maintain the memorial reported that the demonstrators “trashed 87 flags [and] 11 memorial tiles made by myself and my children.” The police inexplicably stood by, perhaps misconstruing the First Amendment to protect the destruction of someone’s property. Police finally arrested a young woman later who, according to the Orange County Register, “claimed responsibility for burning some of the flags.”

Now the incident in La Habra was an aberration, but in the light of such incidents the anti-war movement must make greater efforts to distance themselves from such activities or concede the symbolism of the flag to supporters of the war with Iraq. Some on the Left complain that they have been unfairly labeled unpatriotic. Frankly, it is an habitually overused complaint, but the La Habra incident and the general disinclination to proudly display the American flag make it easy to believe the worst about these groups. Anti-war groups should be smart enough to not make themselves so easy to caricature.

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