By Ron VandenBoom
I recently read an article first published in the Washington Post that was written by Ivan Warner.
Warner, today a successful attorney in Washington, D.C., is a Vietnam veteran who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam from 1967 to 1973.
For five and a half years, Warner said, he endured torture, malnutrition, dysentery and frequent interrogation by his North Vietnamese captors.
During the interrogations, Warner said, his captors told him if he would only admit America was wrong and if he would apologize, he could be released early. If he did not, he would be punished and tortured.
He recalled one interrogation where he was shown a photograph of some Americans protesting the war by burning the American flag.
There, the officer is supposed to have said. People in your country protest against your cause. That proves you are wrong.
No, Warner said was his reply. That proves that I am right. In my country we are not afraid of freedom, even if it means that people disagree with us.
The interrogator is said to have reacted angrily to Warners refusal to admit the flag burning photograph proved his point.
I couldnt help but feel a tinge of pride as I read Warners article. His depth of understanding, even under the worst of circumstances, was impressive. It was not the flag, but what the flag stood for that was important.
To him the flag was nothing but a piece of cloth symbolic at best symbolic of something much more important than red, white and blue fabric. It was symbolic of an idea, a thought, and a feeling. It was symbolic of something that could never be captured in an image or an icon, but only in the minds and hearts of individuals.
Warner knew what he was fighting for and it wasnt the American flag it was freedom. The kind of freedom that allows us to burn the flag, stomp it in the ground, or rip it apart. The kind of freedom that honors not the icon but the idea.
Warner also knew what many fail to understand you cant burn, stomp out, or rip apart an idea. Ideas have to be surrendered or replaced by other hopefully better ideas.
Constitutional Amendments against burning, defacing, or desecrating the flag are insults to the very essence of what the flag represents. It is a crime against the intellect and the principles that make our country unique. It may make us look respectful, but it actually shows a lack of respect.
Warner understood that. He fought for the God-given right of dissent. He wasnt fighting for his right over my right but for all our rights especially those we disagree with. He was fighting for the right to burn draft cards, bras, images of our presidents, or crosses at a KKK rally. He was fighting for the right of a Nazi to preach hate or the hippies to preach love. He was fighting so the rabbi could teach the Talmud and the atheist could say its foolish.
Last week, 95 Democrats and 210 Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives forgot the wisdom of Warner when they voted in favor of a Constitutional Amendment that would make it illegal to burn, deface, or desecrate the American flag.
The amendment will now go to the Senate where it will need 67 votes to pass before going to the states for ratification. The Senate is expected to vote later this summer.
Will neckties, T-shirts, or underwear made with stripes and stars now be considered illegal? Will artists be prosecuted for unflattering portrayals of old glory? If you cut a cake made to look like a flag are you guilty of crimes against the state?
Every Flag Day, The Havre Daily News prints a copy of the flag to be taped in our readers windows. After you remove it, could you be prosecuted if you burned it or threw it in the garbage?
Perhaps Im being silly with the examples, but Im reminded of the not so silly story of the Roman Emperor who had a man executed for carrying a coin into a public toilet. The coin, it seems, had the face of the emperor imprinted on it.
The moral of the story is that the dignity of the coin was preserved, but the dignity of the people was gone forever.