Editorial: Flag waving / Senate plays political games with Old Glory

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In some future era, historians may look back in disbelief at what Congress was doing at a time when the nation was beset by unaddressed problems. They may note with incredulity the political posturing that went into such efforts to ban gay marriage and protect the flag from desecration.

This week, it was Old Glory's calculated turn. As flag burning is something that has hardly been seen since the Vietnam War, amending the Constitution to deal with this odious but rare form of protest is hardly pressing business. But there it was being pressed again -- because, you see, it is symbolic.

Never mind that the real symbol of the flag is freedom -- and freedom is nothing without free speech. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that burning the flag was a form of free speech that had constitutional protection. Ever since the debate has never ceased.

In the aisles of Congress, protecting the flag is less symbolic of freedom than of proving patriotism. Those who defend the very idea of what the flag stands for stand in peril of being cast as sympathetic to its destruction.

Yet a few brave thinkers survive in Congress, refusing to buy the idea that limiting the First Amendment is somehow patriotic. Because they are certain to pay a political price, every year their numbers get fewer. In the Senate on Tuesday, the 66-34 tally on the flag amendment was just one vote shy of the 67 votes needed to send it to the states for ratification.

Some stood firm. One was Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who knows more than most about the flag: He was a Medal of Honor winner who lost an arm in World War II in the service of the United States.

"While I take offense at disrespect to the flag," he said, "I nonetheless believe it is my continued duty as a veteran, as an American citizen, and as a United States senator to defend the constitutional right of protesters to use the flag in nonviolent speech." Wise words. How long will they be heeded?


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