A local radio show was talking about the crash of Air France flight 477 this morning, and one host expressed amazement that aircraft over the ocean aren’t tracked on shore-based radar. He then said, “can’t they track every plane with satellites or something?” I guess the first point betrays the common idea that radar is some kind of magical all-seeing energy beam (amazing considering the technology has been with us for barely 70 years or so), when in fact it’s (somewhat obviously, if one just stops to think) limited by line of sight and thus, the curvature of the earth. As to the second point – somebody’s watched too many action movies. Think the airlines – barely able to stay solvent just shuttling people around and burning jet fuel – can afford to launch their own network of omniscient airplane-tracking satellites? Who’s gonna haul those birds into orbit? Virgin Galactic?
This month’s American Legion magazine has a couple of articles about the perennial topic of a constitutional amendment prohibiting flag burning. Predictably, the Legion comes out strongly in favor of such an amendment, citing nearly “80%” support of Americans as well. I don’t think it’s such a great idea, though, for a number of reasons. First, something as narrowly focused as desecration of the flag seems to be a misapplication of the amendment process. I’m no constitutional lawyer, but putting forth an issue like this would seem to open the door to all manner of other amendments, leading towards some sort of scatter-brained direct democracy system, as seen in California with their referendum system. Would we want a constitutional amendment allowing (or preventing) gay marriage? Abortion? The teaching of evolution in schools (or the prevention thereof)? No on all counts.
The United States Code already has provisions for rules regarding the national colors: see 4USC, chapter 1. If one wants to prohibit flag burning, it would seem that this would be the place to do it. Interestingly, until 1968 there was a provision that desecrating the flag within Washington D.C. was a misdemeanor, punishable by a $100 fine – so obviously the possibility exists to handle the issue in this manner.
Secondly, however, I’m not sure that desecration of the flag isn’t a free speech issue. The flag is a symbol, and can be used to express ideas, for good or for ill, but it is also an object. We live in a free republic, not a religious dictatorship, which means that we shouldn’t have “sacred icons” whose misuse draws the ire of the state.
Finally, I think there are many more important things to focus our efforts on than criminalizing flag burning. I find the practice personally abhorrent, and those who would practice it to be vile and usually the worst kind of hypocrites, but I would not have the government step in. Wielding the law in that way can have unintended consequences, and could easily be turned against you some day.