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Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 2001 / 16 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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It's the flag, not the
latest fall fashion


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- I SAW my first one the other morning:

A flag in the gutter.

The American flag was not one made out of cloth; it was one of those little flag decals meant to stick on windows. It was half-buried by leaves; someone had tossed it to the ground.

Maybe you beat me to it -- maybe you saw a tossed-aside flag before I did.

But it's worth taking note of, in these weeks after Sept. 11. Because the immediate frenzy of flag-waving -- or at least of flag-displaying -- has had some time to settle in, and there are some lessons.

Less than a week into our war on terrorism, I heard from a man who has turned out to be quite prescient. His message? "The countless American flags I am seeing flying from porches, windows and car antennas has got me wondering what is going to happen to these flags once they start getting tattered and faded in a few weeks, and this mess still isn't over. I am sure you have contacts in the VFW or other areas who could talk about proper display and care of a flag. These aren't Cubs pennants."

No, they aren't -- and we'll get to the proper disposal of an American flag before today's column is over. But first, what our recent, renewed romance with the flag may signify.

On the surface, it's obvious: Our nation suffered a terrible attack, and the display of the American flag was a heartening sign of how citizens feel about their country. But the inevitable next step -- flags in the gutter, flags in the trash -- raised the worrisome question of whether it was all a quick fad, or at least something done with not enough thought to respect and constancy.

When you see late-night commercials promoting 1-800 numbers for flag/flag-pin/flag sticker combinations; when you hear from people who have displayed flags in front of their homes, only to have the flags stolen over-night. . . .

Well, flags have been hot. And we can only hope that most of us have the good sense to understand the American flag must not become this year's Ninja Turtles -- something everyone had to have, for a while, and then moved on. Especially with the long war we are told lies ahead, moving on from the flag is not a very attractive option.

There's more. You would hope that people -- especially those who may have been born in countries other than the U.S. -- who display the flag in their vehicles, store windows and homes do so voluntarily and of free will, and not out of something fearfully akin to the old tradition of paying protection money. It's a sensitive subject to bring up, but it should be said out in the open: If some people born elsewhere are feeling they must display an American flag to avoid criticism or worse from people born in the U.S., that is a sad and troubling thing.

Flying the flag is not required in this country; if some people feel they must display the flag as a defensive maneuver, the real meaning of freedom is being insulted. Not to be too blunt -- but if truck bombs are used by terrorists in their assault against our country, we shouldn't be shocked if the trucks bear little American flags for safe passage. You don't need a license to buy a flag -- and these days, there is this false assumption that just by displaying one, you are making an incontrovertible statement about your own patriotism and goodness. It isn't so.

As for the proper way to dispose of a flag: I was surprised, after consulting the U.S. Flag Code and the Boy Scout Handbook, that the recommended method of disposal of an American flag is by burning it.

Burning it respectfully, of course, after it has become frayed or soiled . . . but still, after all the debate in recent years about whether burning the American flag by protesters should be a crime, it is instructive to learn that the patriotic way to dispose of a flag, evidently, is to burn it.

All of this is symbolism -- but then, what is a flag if not a symbol? On Sept. 10, you could hardly find a flag on display in many neighborhoods; now it is difficult to find a neighborhood without them. It may be prudent for us to remember that how we display and dispose of our flags, while significant, is not as important as how we regard what they stand for.

Anyway . . . I saw a flag in the gutter the other morning. It was not a pretty sight.



JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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