Le Plus Ça Change: 15 Years Ago, Flag-Burning Was the Issue

For the holiday weekend, a piece from the fall of 1989, when another George Bush was in office. The nation was all a-twitter about flag-burning. Iran-Contra was fresh in our minds, and Oliver North was still a convicted felon, not a Fox commentator. The invasion of Panama was coming right up. The Gulf War was a year ahead. DC was clocking more murders per capita than any other city in the country.

It happens suddenly. You open a door or turn a corner and something you weren’t ever supposed to know becomes perfectly clear:

George Bush wants us to burn flags.

It has been the habit of many Americans to do what the government tells them not to. They disregard street signs. They drink and drive. Faster than the speed limit. They consume virtually unknowable quantities of illegal and legal drugs. When the government tells them they are going to limit and then ban the importation of inexpensive weapons of mass destruction, they purchase said weapons in record quantities at two hundred, three hundred, even four hundred percent of list price.

That’s what America is all about.

So why add flag-burning to the list? It’s not because it’s been a pressing problem over the past few years. Washington DC hasn’t been dubbed the ‘Flag-Burning Capital of the US’ by the newsmagazines and TV networks, although it seems the most likely place to qualify. Dealers don’t tap on your car window in bad neighborhoods offering you flags, which you can then drive to suburbia and burn in the privacy of your own home. No one in the White House has been caught shredding documents pertaining to the shipment of flags (for burning by nationalist, fundamentalist Muslims, naturally) to the Middle-East in exchange for cash to support non-flag-burning guerillas in Central America. Money designated to buy flags hasn’t been found to have been siphoned off by senior administrators of whatever government department took care of that during the Reagan administration. No, flag-burning hasn’t been on the forefront of my mind over the past few years

But think what’s about to happen if either the Republican call for a Constitutional amendment, or the Democratic ‘compromise’ solution of a Federal statute, protecting the flag from desecration bears fruit. Civil rights organizations and ‘right-to-burners’ all across the nation will rise to the occasion and rush out to purchase flag after flag to burn. Not to mention the average joe who just likes to break the law, who’ll want a flag to burn every few Saturdays or so. A flag-burning epidemic of monumental proportions will sweep the nation. And what will we be able to do about it? Our prisons are already overcrowded. The flag-burners, who will be not only law-breakers but possibly even Constitution-breakers, will jam up the Federal court system, which will be forced to let them go scot-free, or at best with three years suspended sentence, a hefty fine that they probably can’t pay anyway, and a lifetime of public service lecturing government officials on the dangers of corruption. Meanwhile George Bush sits in his office and laughs hysterically.

Why does Bush want us to burn flags? Is it because he’s in league with the flag manufacturers of America (and Taiwan and Singapore…) whose sales are about to take off regardless of whether flag-burning is outlawed or not? Is there some more nefarious plot behind Comrade Bush’s heraldic call to arms? Or is it all just a big mistake?