In one corner we have Toni Smith - the college basketball player whose silent protests against U.S. policies during the playing of the national anthem this season have put her in the national spotlight.
In the other corner we have Jerry Kiley, the Vietnam War veteran who was so incensed by what he interpreted as Smith's disrespect for the flag that he disrupted a game this week in order to confront her.
I'm struck by the contrast between these two protesters. At the start of the season, Smith, a guard at Manhattanville College in Purchase, began turning her back on the flag when the national anthem was played. Her protest was quiet and dignified, without fanfare or theatrics. She didn't carry a sign or send out press releases, and most people didn't even notice at first. It wasn't even clear why she was doing it until she was booed at several games earlier this month by some counter-protesters who were irate at her behavior.
After this newspaper wrote about it, Smith said that she was protesting the government's failure to address inequities here at home in favor of expanding its power abroad. She made a veiled allusion to the pending war with Iraq.
Then along came Kiley, who sneaked onto the basketball court during last Sunday's game and, locating Smith, unfurled a large American flag in her face. The young woman seemed stunned.
"I told her the flag symbolized freedom and the honor and sacrifice of brave men and women," Kiley told me this week. "It doesn't represent President Bush's Iraq policy or Senate or congressional policy. It's a symbol of everything that's good about America. And in turning your back on that flag, you're hurting the family members , especially of those veterans that sacrificed their lives for this country. I thought if she realized that, she would find another way of expressing her dissatisfaction."
But I have problems with Kiley's attack on Smith. There are those who quietly or flamboyantly support one cause or protest against another. And there are those who attack others for not embracing their cause - for not conforming to the same line that they follow.
Here's a proud, 56-year-old veteran who holds strong feelings about the flag and the sacrifices of military men and women like himself. And Smith's a college student who feels in good conscience that she can't salute her country's flag because she's dismayed by what her government is doing. This doesn't make her unpatriotic or disrespectful. It makes her a serious young woman who dares to question what's going on in the world.
"I never meant this to be a public statement," Smith told reporters this week. "I did it for my own self-respect and conscience." After all, she said, the flag means different things to different people.
One is always hearing speeches from flag worshippers who want to tell everyone else what the flag "means." Obviously it's a symbol of the United States, and saluting it is an act of patriotism. But by placing so much emphasis on the flag as a symbol of all that's right with America, the flag worshippers are trying to enforce mindless support for the government, no matter what kind of behavior it's engaged in. If the flag inspires pride about all the great things this country stands for - democracy and the rights of individuals, for example - it's also a symbol of its failure to live up to its own principles by allowing inequalities at home and displaying arrogance abroad.
The demonstrations that are taking place all over the world - with the American flag being displayed as a symbol of U.S. imperialism - are further proof that it means many things to many people, depending on one's point of view.
Kiley remains irate. He was across the street from Manhattanville College the other night while another basketball game was in progress, waving huge American flags with a small group of demonstrators to show how proud they are to be Americans. They're certainly entitled.
Inside the gym, Smith showed her concern for her country in a different way, a gesture for which she was both booed and cheered. This can't be easy for a 21-year-old. It certainly is brave.
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