Steyn: Old Glory Can Take the Heat

Mark Steyn presents an eloquent case against amending the Constitution to outlaw burning the American flag.

Don’t worry, Old Glory can take the heat

The House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment on flag burning last week, in the course of which Rep. Randy ”Duke” Cunningham (Republican of California) made the following argument: ”Ask the men and women who stood on top of the Trade Center. Ask them and they will tell you: Pass this amendment.”

Unlike Congressman Cunningham, I wouldn’t presume to speak for those who died atop the World Trade Center. […] [M]aybe a few would feel as many of my correspondents did last week about the ridiculous complaints of ”desecration” of the Quran by U.S. guards at Guantanamo — that, in the words of one reader, ”it’s not possible to ‘torture’ an inanimate object.”

That alone is a perfectly good reason to object to a law forbidding the “desecration” of the flag. For my own part, I believe that, if someone wishes to burn a flag, he should be free to do so. In the same way, if Democrat senators want to make speeches comparing the U.S. military to Nazis and the Khmer Rouge, they should be free to do so. It’s always useful to know what people really believe.


Banning flag desecration flatters the desecrators and suggests that the flag of this great republic is a wee delicate bloom that has to be protected. It’s not. It gets burned because it’s strong. I’m a Canadian and one day, during the Kosovo war, I switched on the TV and there were some fellows jumping up and down in Belgrade burning the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack. Big deal, seen it a million times. But then to my astonishment, some of those excitable Serbs produced a Maple Leaf from somewhere and started torching that. Don’t ask me why — we had a small contribution to the Kosovo bombing campaign but evidently it was enough to arouse the ire of Slobo’s boys. I’ve never been so proud to be Canadian in years. I turned the sound up to see if they were yelling ”Death to the Little Satan!” But you can’t have everything.

That’s the point: A flag has to be worth torching. When a flag gets burned, that’s not a sign of its weakness but of its strength. If you can’t stand the heat of your burning flag, get out of the superpower business. It’s the left that believes the state can regulate everyone into thought-compliance. The right should understand that the battle of ideas is won out in the open.

Quite so. The impact on American patriotism of seeing some yahoo burn our flag is to increase it. Few things stir the flames of nationalism in the apathetic than the sight of one of our national symbols being treated in that fashion.

The fact that the burning flag makes people so angry proves that it is indeed speech, and forceful speech at that. Idiotic and contemptible speech, yes. But speech that offends the sensibilities of the overwhelming majority is precisely the kind that needs protecting.


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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.


  1. McGehee says:

    The fact that the burning flag makes people so angry proves that it is indeed speech…

    When my dog has an accident on my carpet it makes me angry. Does that make it speech?

  2. Marcus says:

    When I saw this amendment pass I was outraged by those who supported it. Those who support this amendment weaken our flag if anything. What is more important the symbol of the flag, or what the flag represents(freedom). What makes the American flag such a powerful symbol is it represents the freedom to burn it. What an amazing and wonderful flag it is. This amendment will protect the symbol and the expense of the concept it stands for.

    This amendment will turn our flag into nothing bu a hallow symbol.

  3. LJD says:

    Jason takes a break from flag and SUV burning to provide yet another example of “free speech”. Must have been something funky in the tofu last night. Your mommy needs to get some software to keep you off of the websites meant for grown-ups.

  4. McGehee says:

    Never mind Jason — he’s just crapping on the carpet again. Bad dog! BAD DOG!

  5. James Joyner says:

    Kev: The reason the dog crapping on the carpet makes you mad is because you’ve got to clean it up. The reason a burning flag makes you mad is the message it sends. Indeed, if the VFW burns a flag to respectfully dispose of it when it’s worn, you’d likely not object.

  6. James Joyner says:

    Note: I deleted Jason’s off topic tirade.

  7. Michael says:

    But I can still burn an Eagle, right?

  8. ALS says:

    Seeing other Americans burn my flag really turns my stomach. Hell, I get a little misty-eyed just seeing that beautiful piece of cloth fluttering in the breeze.

    But making it illegal? Come on, they can’t be serious. We’re going to throw people in jail for burning the flag? Then what’s next? No more saying bad words about the President? It’s too much of a slippery slope… any true conservative champion of individual liberty and limited government intrusion should feel the same way.

  9. cas says:

    I swore to uphold and defend the Constitution of the US against ALL enemeies, foreign and domestic.
    That meant to me that I must defend ALL parts of the US Constitution, including the 1st Amendment. I agree with the Canadian (surprise!) Mark Steyn who so elocuently expressed what I feel. I respect my country’s flag because I know what it has taken to defend those ideas that it represents. The fact that my country, and the flag that represents her, can ignore such idiots is STRENGTH, not weakness!