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Opinion First amendment rights trump ‘feelings’

A couple of months ago, a burning of a Quran in a Florida Christian Fundamentalist Church sparked a violent reaction with scores of deaths in demonstrations by Fundamentalist Muslims in Afghanistan. The United States attemped a conciliatory tone with statements such as those from General David Petraeus. “We further hope the Afghan people understand that the actions of a small number of individuals, who have been extremely disrespectful to the Holy Quran, are not representative of any of the countries of the international community who are in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people.”

Back in the States however, feelings are not so magnanimous. Many, no doubt say, “Those crazy Muslims are at it again!” After all, while burning someone’s religious book may be in poor taste, it’s only an inanimate object – no crime has been committed. We Americans are so much more sensible, shunning the use of force simply because feelings are hurt or sensitivities are inflamed by words or by the destruction of an object. Well, not quite.

Six times, from 1995 to 2006 the Flag Desecration Amendment to the United States Constitution was introduced in Congress with the last attempt at passage only one vote short in the Senate of the required 2/3 approval of both Houses. One might think there were more important issues to address but obviously many members of Congress and their constituents considered this the “burning” issue of the day.

“Desecration” is a religious term. Proponents of the amendment were hoping to enact what in essence would be a blasphemy law. After the US Supreme Court struck down a Texas anti-desecration flag law in 1989 the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist offered a dissenting opinion that included this statement about the flag, “Millions and millions of Americans regard it with an almost mystical reverence ...” Imagine, a piece of cloth, probably foreign made, thought of as sacred with its “desecration” punishable as a crime. Is it America or AmericaSTAN?

Legislating the protection of feelings can get complicated. Opposition of the flying of the Confederate flag is based on the very same rationale as banning flag burning. Except in this case, many of those who highlight the importance of patriotic passions in regards to the Stars and Stripes will discount the idea of people inflamed by the sight of the Stars and Bars — “Hey, it’s just a symbol – get over it.” Many who argue for freedom of speech by using an American flag for political protests, will quickly dump that principle when the variables change.

Years ago there was a gas station in the South, Southern California that is, that flew a super-sized Confederate battle flag. I thought it was a little odd for that part of the country, but then again the original Carolina Charter extended all the way to the Pacific Ocean. I don’t recall any uproar towards the flag at that time. Today, the Confederate flag is considered by many as a “racist” symbol that we need to be offended by. If that is the case, then the The Stars and Stripes, that flew far longer over the institution of slavery, should be inflammatory.

There are First Amendment rights connected with the display or destruction of flags, books or a host of other items. However, the core issue is one of stifling peaceful, voluntary action. Actions that infringe on someone’s ability to exercise their rights are different from personal feelings that some say must be protected by force. The Sensitivities of others are important, but using force, whether it be the rule of law or mob rule, should not be used to protect or avenge feelings. Perhaps General Petraeus should have quoted from the 1872 non-holy book of Tappy’s Chicks: and Other Links Between Nature and Human Nature “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”


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