No More Flag Amendment... Until 2008

Did you hear that? It was the collective sigh of relief of flag burners across the country...all ten of them. Last night, the Senate fell one vote short of passing a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration. Free beers all around at the Flag Burners Club!

It's going to be a lonely celebration. According to the Citizens' Flag Alliance, an advocacy group that supports a constitutional amendment, there have been only four instances of flag desecration this year. There were 12 in 2005, three in 2004, and six in 2003. Not exactly a nationwide epidemic.

But facts are so antiquated. All that mattered was that Republicans got another arrow in their "Democrats hate America" quiver by forcing a debate on a nonexistent problem. It remains to be seen if, on the campaign trail this fall, they will again channel 9/11 to score political points over the flag-burning amendment. Recall the words of the infamous Randy "Duke" Cunningham in 2005: "Ask the men and women who stood on top of the World Trade Center. Ask them and they will tell you -- pass this amendment."

Republicans pooh-pooh the Supreme Court's ruling that desecrations of the flag are protected as free speech by the First Amendment to the Constitution. (That liberal judicial activist Antonin Scalia has said that banning flag burning "dilutes the very freedom that makes this emblem so revered.") Republicans counter that the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, not freedom of "expression," and that burning a flag is not speech.

But as much as we all love a good tussle over the meaning of the First Amendment, it's a bit beside the point given that there simply is nothing even approximating a flag burning epidemic that could warrant Congress debating this amendment. Remember when constitutional amendments used to address actual issues -- prohibiting slavery, say, or giving women the right to vote? Now Republicans doggedly seek to amend our founding document in case some drunk frat boys set their neighbor's flag on fire (which, one hastens to add, already can be prosecuted under the law).

Democrats -- wrongly, in my opinion -- tried to meet the Republicans halfway and offered a bill that would have criminalized flag desecration, but would avoid amending the constitution. It was handily defeated, since it had no political value to the Republicans. As one Democratic Senator put it, "This amendment isn't about protecting the flag, it's about protecting the Republican majority."

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