Why We Should Wave the Flag

My head jerked at the enormous American flag that covered the hood and wrapped around the passenger and driver's doors on the van that stopped behind me at an intersection. This came moments after President Bush told the nation that the much-anticipated military assault on Afghanistan had finally begun. The driver's flag triggered a spontaneous outburst of shouts, honks, and pumped fists from other drivers and pedestrians. The driver grinned in delight, shouted and pumped his fists back at them. The impromptu patriotic outburst was no aberration.

That scene has been repeated at countless intersections and on neighborhood streets throughout America since the September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Everyone it seems from gang bangers to stockbrokers has answered President Bush's September 14 proclamation and Congress's resolution that called on Americans to display Old Glory. The flag suddenly is no longer a piece of cloth trotted out by white, middle-aged homeowners in suburban neighborhoods on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. The flag is now America's defiant symbol of pride and rage at the barbaric terror attacks.

And, predictably, it has also become a chic, fast-buck fashion fad hawked on street corners, sold in department stores, and clothing shops as bandannas, t shirts, hats, and scarves, and on posters and album covers in record stops.

Yet, despite their flag zeal, many Americans remain clueless about the flag. This was apparent at a candlelight vigil I attended the week after the attack. At the end of the vigil, the crowd broke into a spontaneous rendition of God Bless America and the Star Spangled Banner. Their voices quickly became a hopeless muddle. Many jumbled the lyrics, or simply didn't know them. If they botched the words to two of America's oldest and most revered patriotic standards, could they really be expected to understand, let alone, embrace, the noble virtues the flag supposedly represents?

Many don't, and it should not surprise. Two decades of court challenges by civil liberties groups to the constitutionality of school prayer, the pledge of allegiance, and other patriotic rituals have made school districts duck for cover at any mention of touting the flag and patriotic symbols. Also, during the 1960s student rioters, black militants, and Vietnam war protesters ridiculed the flag as, at best, old-fashioned and outdated, and, at worst, a hated symbol of American dominance.

Conservatives instantly seized on the widespread public disdain for flag rituals. They cast themselves as the protectors and defenders of the flag against the defilers. They draped it over stages, platforms and the podiums at their meetings, rallies, and conventions. They wore it as tiepins and insignias. They refashioned its symbolism and meaning to stand for unbridled expansion of police power, anti-abortion and gay rights, anti-unionism, the gut of education, and affirmative action programs, and school prayer restrictions. The flag now appeared to many as an even more distasteful symbol of bigotry, intolerance and injustice.

But it should not. The flag must be refashioned to stand for racial and ethnic tolerance. This means that federal and state officials must continue to vigorously denounce hate attacks not only against American Muslims, but all minorities. They must swiftly bring federal or state charges against hate attackers.

The flag must stand for the rigorous safeguard of civil rights and civil liberties. This means opposing all proposals to give the FBI, CIA, FAA, and local police agencies, unrestricted power to racially profile, wiretap, surveil, and hold in indefinite detention those suspected of crimes under the guise of battling domestic terrorism.

The flag must stand for the right to dissent and peacefully protest. This means that the public, Congress and President Bush must respect and protect the right of demonstrators to peacefully assemble and protest government war policies. They must condemn those who physically threaten and verbally abuse California congressperson, Barbara Lee, who cast the lone Congressional vote against giving Bush a blank check to wage war against anyone, anywhere, anytime that he brands a terrorist. For exercising her Constitutional right to vote her conscience, she now requires a 24- hour police guard.

Those religious leaders, public officials, and individual Americans who instantly condemned attacks against Muslims, applauded Lee for her courage in dissent, even while they disagreed with it, and those Congresspersons who voted to limit the police power of federal agencies should be praised. They understood that the flag has real meaning when it stands for the stout defense of the civil rights and civil liberties of those who oppose government policies not only in times of peace, but in times of war and national crisis. The eternal challenge for Americans is to follow their lead.

Those who do will truly earn the right to wave the flag.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com.

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