1999 letters to the editor

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Since the end of WWII there have been fewer than 400 Medals of Honor awarded, so General Patrick Brady certainly distinguished himself by earning our country’s highest military award for bravery. I admire and respect his gallantry and service to our country, so it is only after due consideration that I feel obliged to respond to his rant (“It’s not the flag stupid … it’s the Constitution,” in the 11/3/1999 North Georgia News) against the Supreme Court and others who would defend the right of an individual to burn the flag. But the Medal of Honor is evidence of intrepidity, not Constitutional scholarship, and it is the latter where I challenge the General.

There are certainly plenty of examples of government agents, including the “Supremes,” violating the letter and spirit of the Constitution, but protecting flag burners under the aegis of the First Amendment is not one of them. On the contrary, and in direct opposition to the General’s stance, flag desecration is precisely the kind of political expression the Founders intended to protect with the First Amendment. Let me be clear that I neither engage in nor endorse flag burning, but this is not about flag burning. It is about defending the right to burn the flag. And there is a difference. Defending the right to burn the flag and burning the flag are two entirely different things. Nobody who served in the military did so to protect flag burning. People served to protect what Thomas Jefferson called our God given “unalienable rights,” among which he included “Liberty.” Nobody who served this country did so for “the flag.” We all served to protect principles, not symbols, and if we dishonor the principles to protect the symbols, we dishonor those who served to preserve them, and that includes me, and the General. We owe it to those who served, and especially to those who did not return, to preserve the unalienable right of liberty, including the freedom of expression, especially when we disagree with how it is being expressed, Supporting freedom of expression is easy when we agree with what is being expressed, and how it is being expressed. The hard part is supporting freedom of expression when we disagree with what is being expressed, or how it is being expressed. It’s hard, but I know I’m up to the task. I think the General is too, so I’m sending him a copy of this letter to solicit his support.

In a letter to the editor in the 12/8/99 North Georgia News, General Brady [responding to my 11/10/99 letter] addressed a question to me, and I would like to answer it. The General asked if he should support “obscenity, slander, terrorist threats, racial slurs, libel, or the defacing of national monuments as political expression,” and he went on to ask if I [”the writer”] support such actions as political expression. The answer is, in a word, no. All of those actions cause, or threaten to cause, real damage to people or property, and as a result, there is already a plethora of laws on the books (national, state, local) defining all of those activities as crimes, to one degree or another. As for flag burning, if there is no victim (people or property), there is no crime. If there is a victim (people or property), then there is a crime. Defacing a government owned flag is the same category of crime as defacing a national monument (a property crime) and should be punished accordingly. But burning a personally owned flag is no more a crime than burning a personally owned cigar - which means it’s ok for me to do it in my home, but not (without permission) in my neighbor’s home. If I can’t burn a personally owned flag, where does it end? May I burn my soiled 4th of July paper table cloth? Are my flag pattern boxer shorts my personal property, or a protected national symbol?

The General invoked the spirits of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom denounced flag burning. I join those revered Founders in denouncing flag burning. But both Madison and Jefferson were wise enough to realize that their distaste for the activity was not reason enough to support a flag-protection amendment to the Constitution . So am I.


As with all ostensibly beneficial government programs, we must ask the question about unintended consequences. Presumably wilderness areas are to protect the wilderness, but as we have seen recently in our own back yard, the best of intentions can have the opposite effect by inhibiting efforts to fight forest fires. With so much public land at high risk of catastrophic forest fires (according to the US Forest Service, approximately 40 million acres) it is irresponsible to expand the area in which we deny firefighters the ability to bring trucks and other equipment into the scene of the fire.

And add to our own recent experience, the situation last year in Elko County, Nevada, when firefighters were prevented by wilderness regulations from extinguishing a fire in the federally-protected Cedar Ridge Wilderness Study Area. Only two hundred yards from the blaze, officials forbade firefighters from driving their vehicles off the road because regulations do not permit off-road vehicular travel, even for emergencies.

As a result, many acres of federal wilderness needlessly burned. And let us not forget the tragic human consequences of bureaucrats letting the regulations get in the way of their common sense. One of the most egregious examples of this was experienced by renowned auto racer Bobby Unser, who was punished by the government just for trying to stay alive. While snowmobiling in an authorized area in New Mexico, Unser and a friend became disoriented and lost during an unexpected blizzard and in trying to escape the snow storm they may have strayed into a wilderness area.

After one snowmobile got stuck and the other broke down they were forced to spend the night in a makeshift snow cave. The next day they trudged through the backcountry for 18 hours before finding help. Unser and his friend had to be hospitalized for exposure, a but their trouble was just beginning.

Soon after Unser left the hospital, the United States Forest Service charged him with illegally taking his snowmobile into a federal wilderness area, they threatened him with a fine and/or six-month jail sentence, and they spent $600,000 of your and my tax dollars in prosecuting their case against him and his friend.

We need to be reducing the opportunities for such abuses, not increasing them, which means, thumbs down to more wilderness area.

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