Criminalizing Lying about Heroism
It’s against the law to falsely claim you’ve been awarded the Medal of Honor. The NYT’s Adam Liptak has an interesting discussion of the matter.
“You don’t want to stifle speech about opinions and ideas,” Mr. Missakian said. “But Congress, and rightfully so, recognized the great sacrifice that people awarded the Medal of Honor made on behalf of their country. To the extent we have phony Medal of Honor winners running around like Alvarez, it dilutes the value of their sacrifice.”
That rationale is reflected in Congressional findings. The law, Congress said, is meant “to protect the reputation and meaning of military decorations and medals.”
Some First Amendment experts worry that criminalizing speech about symbols is a dangerous business and is reminiscent of laws against flag burning that the Supreme Court has held unconstitutional. “If the government cannot under the First Amendment compel reverence when it comes to our nation’s highest symbol,” asked Ronald K. L. Collins, a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington, “why then can it compel reverence when it comes to lesser forms of symbolic expression?”
While I’m inclined to agree with Eugene Volokh that “false statements of fact generally lacks constitutional value,” I’m nonetheless skeptical about the law.
Fraud, of course, isn’t protected speech. And if someone claims to be a veteran or a war hero in order to bilk someone out of benefits to which he’d otherwise not be entitled, it should be illegal on that basis. But why is pretending to be a hero in order to get admiration against the law?
Unseemly? Absolutely. But punishable by state action? Something for which one should be deprived of liberty or property? Something for which scarce law enforcement resources should be expended?
Phil Carter offered the following insights upon returning home from a combat tour in Iraq:
Soldiers and civilians also share a different moral code, something highlighted by those different definitions of heroism. Soldiers exist for their team; they will do anything for love of their brothers and sisters in uniform. Civilians, by contrast, live for themselves. Americans have become the quintessential rational actors of economic lore — pursuing their self-interest above all else, seeking enrichment and gratification.
To be sure, Americans engage in a great deal of altruism, and this is to be praised too. But the sporadic acts of selfless service performed by civilians cannot compare to the life of service chosen by our military personnel.
So when civilians approach us in airports and cafes to thank us for our service, it frequently causes some degree of discomfort and alienation. Although grateful for the warm reception, many of us don’t know how to respond. Our service means a great deal to us. We will never forget the sacrifices, hardships or experiences we had in combat, nor will we ever forget those with whom we served. But I have never felt that such service merits praise, and certainly not the label of heroism.
I judge myself by the code of a warrior. That ethos demands selfless service, not aggrandizement. It praises the team, not the individual. And it saves its highest accolades for those who distinguish themselves through extraordinary acts of valor. As veterans, we know the real heroes among us; many of them did not come home. Awarding this distinction to everyone cheapens the accomplishments of those who earned it — and makes the rest of us feel guilty that we have somehow stolen recognition from the worthy.
Claiming medals that one has not earned violates the warrior’s code. Admiral Mike Boorda, the highest ranking admiral in the United States Navy at the time, killed himself when it was revealed he’d worn a relatively minor award to which he wasn’t entitled rather than endure the shame.
It’s not clear to me why that code should be enforceable against mere wannabes; that’s an honor reserved for those who have served. The penalty for failing to live up to it is scorn from those who have.