Published on Wednesday, June 28, 2006 by The Nation
Veterans Defending the Bill of Rights
by John Nichols
Wow! Is it an election year already?
It must be because Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate have initiated the debate over amending the Constitution to ban flag desecration that always marks the opening of the political season.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who sometimes lapses into sanity, was having a bad day Monday when he led the committee to a 10-7 vote to add this line to the Constitution: "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."
The division was almost along party lines. Nine Republicans and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, a frequent disappointment when it comes to Constitutional matters, voted for the amendment. Seven Democrats opposed it, including Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the committee's ranking Democrat, and Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, the ranking Democrat on the Constitution subcommittee.
When the full Senate took up the issue today, the amendment failed by one vote. It needed 67 votes to pass. It got 66.
But that won't stop Republican strategists from plotting fall campaigns based on empty rhetoric about how the amendment is needed to "support the troops" or to "honor those who fought for freedom."
But what do prominent people who fought in past wars actually have to say about the amendment?
The most decorated war veteran in the Senate, Hawaii Democrat Dan Inouye opposed the amendment. "This objectionable expression is obscene, it is painful, it is unpatriotic," Inouye said of flag burning. "But, the winner of the Medal of Honor for his service in World War II, told the Senate, "I believe Americans gave their lives in many wars to make certain all Americans have a right to express themselves, even those who harbor hateful thoughts."
Inouye was hardly alone in that sentiment.
"The First Amendment exists to insure that freedom of speech and expression applies not just to that with which we agree or disagree, but also that which we find outrageous," explained former Secretary of State and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, in his classic statement of opposition to attempts to craft a "flag-burning" amendment. "I would not amend that great shield of democracy to hammer a few miscreants. The flag will be flying proudly long after they have slunk away."
Former U.S. Senator John Glenn, a World War II Marine Corps veteran and space-program hero, shares the view that it is not necessary to alter the Constitution. "Those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, who died following that banner, did not give up their lives for a red, white and blue piece of cloth," said Glenn. "They died because they went into harm's way, representing this country and because of their allegiance to the values, the rights and principles represented by that flag and to the Republic for which it stands.
Lawrence J. Korb, a Vietnam veteran and top aide in Ronald Reagan's Department of Defense, said, "(During) my years of military and civilian service during the cold war, I believed I was working to uphold democracy against the totalitarianism of Soviet Communism expansionism. I did not believe then, nor do I believe now, that I was defending just a piece of geography, but a way of life. If this amendment becomes a part of our Constitution, this way of life will be diminished. America will be less free and more like the former Soviet Union and present-day China.
James Warner, a former prisoner of war and domestic policy adviser to President Reagan, argued against the proposed amendment, saying, "People are born free. It says that in the Declaration of Independence. They have a right to express their opinions, even if I don't like the opinions they express or the means by which they express it. They have a right to say it, even if those opinions are incoherent."
Luckily, before they voted, a good many senators considered the words of these veterans, and of Gary May, the chairman the national group Veterans Defending the Bill of Rights, who said. "I lost both of my legs in combat while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam. I challenge anyone to find someone who loves this country, its people and what it stands for more than I. It offends me when I see the flag burned or treated disrespectfully. But, as offensive and painful as this is, I still believe that those dissenting voices need to be heard."
"This country is unique and special because the minority, the unpopular, the dissident also have a voice," adds May. "The freedom of expression, even when it hurts the most, is the truest test of our dedication to the principles that our flag represents."
Hopefully, as the fall campaign season gears up, voters will listen, as well, to the veterans who recall what they were really fighting for.
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times. Nichols is the author of two books: It's the Media, Stupid and Jews for Buchanan.
© 2006 The Nation