Date: July 4, 2007
Byline: Kiley Miller
Symbol of patriotism
Today is first Fourth of July new state laws on treatment of flag in effect.
TRENTON — For a while last week, it appeared as if this tiny Henry County community was being overrun.
A flag in the center of the lone park was flying upside down, a position meant to signal extreme danger. In also appeared to be at half-staff.
In the end, no threat was imminent. A clip holding the top of the flag to the rope lanyard simply had pulled free, allowing the flag to flop over. One call to the volunteer in charge and the problem was fixed.
But the questions raised over those few days — Was the flag a mistake? A prank? An anti-war statement? — demonstrated yet again the unwavering attention given the country's most recognizable symbol. Perhaps no other object further exceeds the sum total of its parts. Red, white and blue nylon fabric somehow comes together to represent the history and ideals of the world's the lone superpower.
And, as seen in Trenton, a flag's condition conveys its own silent message. Tatters bring disgust. Flames can evoke rage.
Etiquette, it seems, does matter.
But is the average citizen committed to handling the U.S. flag in the prescribed way? Or is there truth in the perception that respect for the Stars and Stripes is on the wane?
The topic is particularly relevant in Iowa this week as new language in the state code took effect regulating how far a person can go in abusing the flag to make a point.
Mike Buss, assistant director of Americanism at the American Legion headquarters in Indianapolis, acknowledges there may be more damaged flags hanging from poles across the country than in eras past, but he does not equate that to declining patriotism. In fact, his view is nearly opposite.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks nearly six years ago, Buss said, "we saw a huge upswing in the number of flags displayed."
People are busy, though, and sometimes the flag can be forgotten.
"I think a lot of times they just don't realize it's deteriorating," he said.
Half the states in the country now have mandatory flag education in the schools, Buss added. To help out, the American Legion created course materials on the subject. Much of the information is available on the Legion Web site, www.legion.org.
Buss is a retired Navy man. He's also an Iowa native. As such, he's somewhat familiar with the state code changes in place since Sunday.
A federal judge ruled in March that a pair of Iowa laws prohibiting misuse and desecration of the flag were unconstitutionally vague. The decision came in separate lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two men arrested after flying flags upside down. One of the men, an Ottumwa resident, also wrote "Corruption by Blood" on his flag to protest city ordinances and the way they were enforced.
State lawmakers were quick to respond to the ruling, drafting a new section to the code defining terms such as disrespect, deface, defile, mutilate and trample.
They also clarified language that makes it illegal to "show disrespect" to the flag "with the intent or reasonable expectation that such use will provoke or encourage another to commit trespass or assault."
In simplest terms, the section prohibits one person from burning or mishandling a flag when he or she knows the action could make another person angry enough to lash out. Doing so can bring a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge punishable with a fine and jail time.
Gov. Chet Culver signed the new flag legislation in late May, but Buss wonders whether it can withstand another court challenge.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that flag burning is protected under what Buss derided as a "thin veil of free speech," the American Legion and other organizations have pushed for a Constitutional amendment banning the act.
"Burning the flag is not speech. It's action," Buss said.
Other groups see things differently, though. Ben Stone, the executive director of the ACLU's Iowa chapter, criticized the new flag bill as "feel-good legislation" and said law enforcement officials should not interpret the code sections "as a green light to go out and arrest political protesters."
Des Moines County Attorney Pat Jackson said his office has never brought disorderly conduct charges against someone for defacing a flag. Future incidents will be evaluated individually and prosecuted if a violation is found, he added.
"As a county attorney, I take an oath of office to enforce the Iowa code, not to pick and choose which parts of the code to enforce," Jackson said.
Honoring the fallen
For Culver, a rookie Democratic governor, the flag has flown front and center since day one of his administration. His first executive order required that all flags over state buildings be lowered to half-staff when an Iowa service member is killed overseas. Individuals, businesses, schools, municipalities, counties and other government subdivisions are encouraged to drop their flags, as well.
"These soldiers have paid the ultimate sacrifice," said Brad Anderson, Culver's spokesman. "The governor wanted a way to show respect to them and to their families."
The U.S. Flag Code reserves to presidents and governors alone the authority to order the lowering of the flag. When Burlington city officials wanted to honor Police Chief Dave Wunnenberg, who drowned this spring, they sought permission from Culver's office to move the flag to half-staff.
Since the advent of the Iraq War, governors in other states have taken different approaches to remembering fallen soldiers. In California, only the U.S. and state flags over the Capitol are lowered. In Wisconsin, all state buildings are included.
Across the Missouri River, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman allows local officials to order flags to half-staff when a service member from their community is killed.
Some critics see in these gestures a subtle statement against the war, but Anderson denied that was not Culver's intent. "It's a pro-Iowa soldier statement."
The criticism isn't necessarily related to Iraq. At the American Legion, Buss took several calls from people who disagreed with President George W. Bush's decision to lower the flags following the April shooting at Virginia Tech University that killed 32 people. His advice in such situations is always the same: Take it up with the agency issuing the order.
The frequency with which governors are choosing to put flags at half-staff also has led to occasional confrontations with federal officials.
In Michigan, the Stars and Stripes outside a veterans hospital remained at full-staff earlier this year despite an order from Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm to lower all flags for 24 hours in remembrance of a soldier killed in Iraq.
President Bush put an end to such conflicts last week when he signed a bill extending a governor's authority in such instances to include federal agencies.
One mighty flag
For Ken Folger, the disputes between government factions are irrelevant. All he needs to know is where the flag should be each morning.
Folger is the maintenance supervisor for Farmers & Merchants Bank and Trust in Burlington. His duties include caring for what is arguably the most prominent flag in town — a 15-foot by 25-foot banner waving high atop the bank building on the corner of Jefferson and Third streets.
From up close, the flag seems as large as a cutter's sail, its pole as thick as a mast. A pair of broad flood lights point upward, illuminating it through the dead of night.
Folger keeps multiple flags in rotation. Every few months, one goes off for repairs while another takes its place 150 feet above the downtown.
"Winter is hard on them," he said.
The flags are heavy and awkward; the roof can be sweltering this time of year.
And yet, from a hilltop on Division Street, the view gives meaning to Folger's effort. There is the flag rolling in the breeze before the twin spires of the Great River Bridge while far below, the people of Burlington go about their daily lives under its protective shadow.
Folger admits he, like many of his fellow Americans, is not an expert on flag etiquette. But he knows enough.
"I know what I'm supposed to do."
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