Be Decent: Don’t Burn the American Flag

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It is no secret I am a patriot. And as such, I was saddened to hear of the seemingly growing discontent with America as embodied by the Colin Kaepernick-led kneeling for the National Anthem and a professedly renewed prominence of burnings of the American flag.

When you dishonor the flag, you are spitting on the graves of the young boys who left the comfort of their homes to throw themselves onto the beaches of Normandy. You are disgracing the memories of the people who lost their best friends, their limbs, and their sanity going through hell in order for you to have the freedom to wantonly criticize them.

You are allowed to sit for the anthem. But in the spirit of Christmas I ask that we reflect on our good fortune and that we reflect on those who gave for us. I ask that we be decent.

During the Christmas season it’s always important to remember to be particularly appreciative of the blessings that we have. Unfortunately, it is often too easy to fail to appreciate our good fortune. For the past four months, I have been living in Berlin, and while I am very happy to say that living in Germany has granted me many new perspectives on life and the world, I was nothing short of ecstatic to move back to the United States last week. I love my country; I think the United States is the greatest country in the history of human civilization, and after having been apart from its wonderful hills and rivers for so long, I can confidently say I will never take the sight of our national flag, the Star-Spangled Banner, for granted again.

It is no secret I am a patriot. And as such, I was saddened to hear of the seemingly growing discontent with America as embodied by the Colin Kaepernick-led kneeling for the National Anthem and a professedly renewed prominence of burnings of the American flag.

I noticed as I listened to the concerns of these protesters that those who knelt for the anthem and those who burned the flag would often claim to have similar grievances with the state of our union. And whether these grievances were about police brutality, economic or racial inequality, American military involvement abroad, or anything else, it was clear (at least to me) that these were concerns worth talking about.

But engaging in reasonable and civil dialogue about real issues facing our country and disrespecting or desecrating the American flag are two entirely different things.

Objects have symbolic value. The American flag is more than simply a red, white, and blue piece of cloth. It symbolizes American values. Most people that I know, myself included, would never even consider kneeling for the anthem or burning the flag if for no other reason than we love our country. We recognize something that many others, unfortunately, don’t: that America, while not a perfect nation, is a fundamentally moral one. The freedoms we enjoy within our borders are privileges that most people in history haven’t had, and it is so important to be thankful and reverent for our good fortune.   

Now, as I’ve stated earlier, I understand that there are many people who do not share my vision of America. This saddens me, but I do not mean to discount many real concerns that people have. But even if you are thoroughly convinced that America is fundamentally imbued with endemic immorality, manifested in whatever avenue, it is still indecent to dishonor our flag. This is because the flag represents more than the American government. It represents more even than American values. It represents people. It represents people who fought and died for us.

One thing that Colin Kaepernick has repeatedly stated about his protests is that he means no disrespect to the members of the American military. This argument is neither good nor original. And frankly, I don’t really care what Colin Kaepernick or others who make the same argument believe the American flag to represent. The American flag does represent the men and women who sacrificed their lives to defend the United States.

When you dishonor the flag, whether through kneeling during its rise during the National Anthem, stepping on the cloth, or burning it in protest, you are dishonoring the legacy of these people. You are spitting on the graves of the young boys who left the comfort of their homes to throw themselves onto the beaches of Normandy. You are disgracing the memories of the people who lost their best friends, their limbs, and their sanity going through hell in order for you to have the freedom to wantonly criticize them. Why would you disrespect these men and women?

For those of us with family and loved ones in the military, the American flag is what drapes the coffin of the schoolmate being sent home from war. It is what the widow next-door clutches as she tries to fall asleep after having lost her husband. It is what the paralyzed veteran salutes as he listens to the anthem of the nation he gave his youth defending.

If your level of decency would prevent you from literally spitting in the faces of these people, it should prevent you from symbolically spitting in their faces. Because whether or not you want the American flag to represent these men and women, it does. And decent people don’t desecrate the legacies of people who sacrificed everything they had to protect you. In the name of being a fundamentally decent human being, don’t burn the flag. Stand for the National Anthem. But I will not make you. As I look at the American flag, I am filled with many emotions, overwhelmed by a flood of ideals, the foremost of which is the thought of freedom. And as part of our freedoms, you are allowed to burn the flag. You are allowed to sit for the anthem. But in the spirit of Christmas I ask that we reflect on our good fortune and that we reflect on those who gave for us. I ask that we be decent.

Hunter Michielson is an undergraduate studying philosophy and German at Duke University. He spent this past summer working at The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. 

Articles authored or co-authored by Hunter Michielson.

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