Half-Mast or Half-Assed?

A powerful symbol has been robbed of its significance.

WaPo (“Biden orders flags flown at half-staff — then orders them back up, as two events collide“):

President Biden initially ordered flags on Saturday to be flown at half-staff. Then he ordered them back up at full-staff.

It’s because of a quirk that comes up every half dozen years or so, when a day that honors two groups collides — with two different protocols for the American flag. For Peace Officers Memorial Day, which falls on May 15, flags are supposed to be at half-staff. But the third Saturday in May is marked to honor Armed Forces Day — and on that day, flags are supposed to be full-staff.

On Saturday, those two days were one and the same.

Biden’s initial proclamation last week said that flags should be flown at half-staff. But he reissued a proclamation on Friday making clear that flags were to remain at full-staff.

The White House declined to comment on the record about the change, but suggested that it was done to remain in compliance with U.S. codes honoring Armed Forces Day.

“The flag shall be flown at half-staff on Peace Officers Memorial Day, unless that day is also Armed Forces Day,” reads the U.S. code pertaining to the flag.

“This weekend is a once-in-a-decade scenario based on the flag code,” said a White House official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “As a result, flag code dictates that the flags should not be lowered today. The president stands by the message of his proclamation and his longtime commitment to working with law enforcement to build safer communities.”

Still, a number of Republicans have criticized Biden, saying that his decision was done to offend police officers.

“In his opinion they aren’t worthy of lowering the flags,” Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) wrote on Twitter. “Unacceptable!”

Leaving aside the idiocy of Republican politicians playing, well, politics with this (they’d have criticized Biden for not honoring the Armed Forces had he done the opposite) this gets at one of my recent pet peeves: we fly the flag at half-staff way too often, draining the symbolism of any meaning.

Granted, the vast majority of Americans will have no idea of how high the national ensign flies on any given day. Because I work on a military base, though, I walk by a flagpole on the way to and from my car to the office on a weekdaily basis. And it seems that the flag is at half mast more than it’s at full.

Just since Biden took office on January 20, we’ve had the following Presidential Proclamations:

  • May 15, 2021 in honor of Peace Officers Day
  • April 20, 2021-April 27, 2021 in honor of Walter Mondale
  • April 16, 2021-April 20, 2021 in honor of the victims of the shooting in Indianapolis
  • April 6, 2021-April 7, 2021 in honor of Alcee Hastings
  • April 2, 2021-April 6, 2021 as a sign of respect for the service and sacrifice of the victims of the attack at the United States Capitol on Friday, April 2, 2021
  • March 23, 2021-March 27, 2021 in honor of the victims of the shooting in Boulder
  • March 18, 2021-March 22, 2021 in honor of the victims of the shooting in Atlanta
  • February 23, 2021-February 26, 2021 in honor of the 500,000 Americans who died of COVID

And Biden isn’t unusually generous with these. His predecessor issued them at a similar rate. The above list, kept by the state of Missouri, only goes back to April 20, 2020 and it would have taken me half the morning to compile it in similar fashion.

I get commemorating the deaths of former Presidents and maybe Vice Presidents. First Ladies? Okay, I guess. Sitting Senators and Representatives? I’m honestly not sure that shouldn’t be a state and local observance.

A single national Memorial Day to honor the sacrifices of those who died in the nation’s wars. Sure. That’s a national remembrance of a patriotic nature.

Police officers? Why them and not firefighters, EMTs, truck drivers, and others who perform dangerous, vital work?

Shooting victims? Why? Those are personal tragedies, not national ones. (A national gun culture that makes these shootings so common is a tragedy, to be sure, but national commemorations actually incentivize copycats.)

Beyond that, honoring some victims of some tragedies not only essentially forces future Presidents to continue to do so but it essentially sends the signal that those who aren’t so honored aren’t important. Sadly, mass shootings are pretty common in America. We lower the flag to half staff—for three days!—for some of them and not at all for others.

Similarly, Presidents are occasionally asked to go beyond what the statute requires for special deaths. How long should a John McCain or John Lewis be honored? Surely, not the bare minimum! But this inevitably creates a demand signal to extend special consideration for others, requiring Presidents to either accede or send the message that, no, sorry, your dead Senator wasn’t quite up to the McCain/Lewis standard.

Lowering the flag after a nationally searing tragedy—the Capitol riots, the 9/11 attacks, the Challenger disaster—is a powerful symbol of our shared national community. But it’s so common now that I literally have to Google to see why the flag is down this time on a regular basis.

FILED UNDER: Society, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mu says:

    Our state flies half-mast for every dead local soldier or police officer, I think we’re probably half-mast half of the year.

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  2. JohnMcC says:

    Well said; agree completely. Also will toss in that the proliferating home display (and car/truck display etc) of the flag has completely destroyed any sense of when one displays it, when one doesn’t and how it’s displayed. And the used car lots that line their curbsides with the flag. And….

    Actually, flag doesn’t mean much any more.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @JohnMcC: I’m reminded of the late, great George Carlin’s admonition that “Symbols are for the symbol-minded.” But I actually think symbols like the flag are meaningful and useful and hate to see them diminished in this way.

    I’ve long opposed playing the National Anthem at sporting events and the like (long predating the Colin Kaepernick protests) because it just turns it into background noise. “Play ball!” isn’t a patriotic celebration, unless it’s the first game back after the 9/11 attacks or something.

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  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    There is a small park at the foot of my street, that once was the site of a Coast Guard station, it seems at least once a week the flag on the property is at half-staff and darned if I can think of a reason. Thanks for the partial explanation.

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  5. Mister Bluster says:

    I was talking to an acquaintance at the coffee shop the other day who was sporting an American Flag pin on his lapel. Without any apparent provocation he volunteered that no one could make him remove it.
    “Yes.” I said. “This is a great country. No one is telling you that you can’t wear it.” …
    As he began to smile I continued “and no one is saying that you have to.”
    I don’t think he was expecting to hear that as he suddenly looked befuddled.

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  6. Mister Bluster says:

    @Mister Bluster:..the next day
    Should read the other day.
    Clearly proofing something 5 times is not enough.
    And why does the {b i link quote} function bar keep disappearing?
    …..
    Edited To Add
    Hello EDIT key! I need my patience tested all the time. Keep it up.

  7. But it’s so common now that I literally have to Google to see why the flag is down this time on a regular basis.

    Same.

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  8. @James Joyner:

    I’ve long opposed playing the National Anthem at sporting events and the like (long predating the Colin Kaepernick protests) because it just turns it into background noise. “Play ball!” isn’t a patriotic celebration, unless it’s the first game back after the 9/11 attacks or something.

    Agreed.

    To me, it makes sense at international events, like when the US wins a gold medal or before a World Cup match. But at every, single event? It becomes aural wallpaper.

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  9. CSK says:

    @Mu: @Steven L. Taylor:
    Ditto in Massachusetts.

  10. The silliest example of this I’ve ever seen came when Whitney Houston died due to an overdose and Chris Christie ordered flags in the state be flown at half staff.

  11. Michael Cain says:

    I talked with the guy (naturalized citizen) who is developing the townhouse complex where we live now. He says that the next time he moves the model/sales office, he’ll be getting rid of the flagpole and US flag because it is too much to ask the office staff to keep track of whether it is flying in proper accordance to the law.

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  12. Gustopher says:

    We need to be fitting flag poles with telescoping extensions, so we can fly the flag at one-and-a-half mast when America does something great.

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  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: I was going to go the opposite direction. The real solution may be to fly the flag upside down.

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  14. Mr. Prosser says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: @Steven L. Taylor: The concessions lines are the best place to be during the anthem as well as getting in line before the 7th inning stretch since some idiot decided God Bless America had to be played then.

  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mr. Prosser: We sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” here. Along with “Sweet Caroline”–as a tribute to the team owner’s wife. (Or mistress, I’ve never been quite clear on that. 😉 )

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  16. Mister Bluster says:

    I still think that Roseanne Barr rendered one of the top 5 presentations of the Anthem. When she was asked why she spat on the ground and grabbed her crotch she said that she had been observing baseball players standing along the base lines during the Anthem before games and that’s what many of them were doing.

  17. Mister Bluster says:

    One of the best. Jose Feliciano. World Series Game 5. Detroit MI October 7, 1968
    Yeah Yeah!

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  18. Kathy says:

    @Gustopher:

    Well, there are an infinite number of fractions between 1/2 and 1* The flag would be raised to 0.5001 staff, say, or 0.756, or 0.99999 staff, for losses or commemorations that don’t merit the half staff. In practice, you could paint gradations on the pole and people can see how sad or solemn they should be.

    *I counted them.

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  19. David S. says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Is this supposed to be like how Satanists depict the cross upside-down?

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  20. Scott F. says:

    @James Joyner:
    But, if we didn’t sing the National Anthem at every sporting event, the People wouldn’t know that we live in the greatest country in the history of the world. In the absence of overt displays of patriotism, we’d have to actually behave like patriots. And we can’t have that.

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  21. Just nutha ignint cracker says:
  22. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Bummer. That version left out the guy who was “79 years young.” (That’s the best cut on the whole schtick. 🙁 )

  23. Boyd says:

    As a former Army officer, your consistent use of the term “half-mast” is a bit surprising. Maybe you’ve been hanging around Marines too much.

  24. James Joyner says:

    @Boyd: My dad was a career Army NCO. While we mostly lived off post, we lived on Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri and Kaiserslautern AFB when I was a kid. For whatever reason, though, “half-mast” was always the way this was phrased when I was coming up. Only much later did I learn that “half-staff” is really more appropriate in these cases. Alas, it doesn’t rhyme with “half-assed.”

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