Today is Flag Day. Created by presidential decree in 1916, it commemorates the June 14, 1777 date on which the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution designating the Stars and Stripes as the official standard of the United States of America.
Normally, Flag Day is considered one of our minor holidays; few people get the day off and it’s often given less consideration than Memorial Day or perhaps even Presidents’ Day. We might not see many Flag Day mattress sales. This year, however, the day comes amid renewed debate over protests involving the flag, specifically some NFL players’ decision to sit or kneel during the national anthem and presentation of colors to protest police brutality and racial injustice during the 2016 season.
President Trump and others decried the protests as a show of disrespect to the flag, and the NFL and team owners forbade the practice after several games. In the wake of last month’s death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police, the issue has been resurrected. Several players have announced that they would renew their protests when the season begins, despite the ban, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently announced that the league was wrong to impose it.
Many people still insist that such protests are a disgrace; some people have issued posts on social media threatening to attack — even kill — anyone they see disrespecting the flag.
Kneeling when the flag is presented pales in comparison to the flag burnings that occurred as opposition to the Vietnam War grew in the 1960s and 1970s. Still any show of disrespect stirs deep visceral reactions among many Americans, even many who recognize it as a valid act of protest. That is why flag burning is so common among anti-American protests in other countries; people know the act will hit a nerve with people who grew up pledging allegiance to the flag to start each school day.
We must remember, however, that the flag is a symbol. It’s a symbol of our great country and all its features. It represents our government and our way of life; it represents our beliefs and our goals, such as relative freedom, equal opportunity and individual respect — goals we always pursue even if we might not always achieve them. It represents our rights, including our right to express our opinions and to protest — even to the point of burning the symbol itself.
Those rights and freedoms are what are important. Our flag, which represents them, can never take precedence over them.
A symbol can never be more important than that which it symbolizes. If we begin banning protests that include the flag or any of our other national symbols, we violate the very rights they represent. We cheapen the symbols by doing so.
In the end, criminalizing disrespect for the flag is a greater defilement than a simple genuflection made during its presentation.
We honor our flag more by respecting the freedoms and rights that give it meaning. Defending those rights, even if it sacrifices the flag itself, only gives it more strength.