This morning, while breaking up camp on Mount Desert Island, I noticed that someone had placed a small polyester American flag next to a water spigot. In the course of regular use, the water spigot had hit the soil, kicked up some of that soil, and in the process placed dirt on the American flag. That flag got me to thinking.
If I burn an American flag, there are prominent and powerful people in America who say that I have “desecrated” the flag and should go to jail.
What if I put dirt on that flag? What if I smear dirt all over it? Have I “desecrated” (literally, made unsacred) the flag then?
What if I take a picture of a burning or soiled American flag and spread that picture all around? Have I desecrated the flag then?
What if the dirt that got on a flag got there accidentally, through negligence, like that flag on Mount Desert Island? Has the flag been desecrated? Is the person responsible for the flag’s soiling guilty of flag desecration? Who is the person responsible: the one who used a water spigot, or the one who placed the flag next to a spigot?
These are not wholly irrelevant questions. In the United States Senate, Orrin Hatch and 21 of his fellow U.S. Senators have introduced an amendment to the Constitution which if implemented would let flag “desecration” become a federal crime. And just last month in Pennsylvania, a man was thrown in jail for nothing more than possessing a ragged, dirty flag.