Tuesday, July 11, 2006


(This piece appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times on July 11, 2006.)

It’s time again for the GOP’s sales team to re-shoe its warhorses, as it does roughly every other year. They’ll lead them down to the U.S. House and Senate and trot them around the ring for their dwindling base.

Yes, the flag burning and gay marriage amendments to the United States Constitution are back, and just in time for the mid-term elections. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn) recently told Fox News Sunday that America needs them. Like River City needs a boys’ band.

Healthcare, deficits, gas prices, port security, the bleeding in Iraq, and (heaven forbid) congressional reform can wait. Instead, the GOP thinks the House, the Senate, and fifty state legislatures should be debating a constitutional response to flag-burning jerks (rarer than small-government conservatives lately). And to prevent one of the “Queer Eye” Fab Five and his partner from filing a joint tax return.

You’ve seen this rerun. Frist and pals bring the amendments to the floor for their biennial defeat. (The Senate voted down the Marriage Protection Amendment on June 7.) Then all summer they try giving wedgies to Democrats who vote “no” because they dared to defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Then after the first Tuesday in November, Republican leaders put their warhorses out to pasture for another two years.

It’s respect for such cherished traditions that keeps us from seeing politicians as cynical and manipulative.

And later this summer, because the “survival of civilization” will be at stake, they will ask whom you trust to protect you. You can trust those who overestimated the Iraqi threat and underestimated the occupation’s cost in blood, treasure and moral authority. Or, as Vice-President Dick Cheney has hinted, you can make the wrong choice, vote for Democrats, and die in the next attack.

Your choice. Take your time.

In fact, America once fought a civil war to decide whether or not this union would survive. There were over half a million casualties.

We’re still here.

In World War II, we fought a fascist threat that murdered millions and threatened to enslave the world. There were over one million American casualties.

We’re still here.

For most of my life, through the Cuban missile crisis and until the Berlin Wall came down, we lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation on 30 minutes warning from a fleet of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles. Real missiles. Real nuclear warheads. Real weapons of mass destruction.

And we’re still here.

Bird flu was recently the threat du jour. In press reports about a potential pandemic, the lack of vaccine and hospital beds, and the possibility of millions dead, there was no suggestion that it was a threat to America’s survival. A faceless virus, bird flu wasn’t marketable as the latest, greatest foreign menace.

For all the horrors they’ve inflicted, terrorists will never threaten America’s survival. Deadly foes, certainly. Yet of the threats we’ve faced, terrorism wouldn’t even make the top ten. But fear of it, like gay marriage and flag burning, makes a dandy campaign issue when your record on everything else stinks up the place. (Where is Osama bin Laden anyway?)

Even the fearmongers admit another attack is almost a certainty (that is, they can’t stop it). But anyone faint-hearted enough to believe civilization itself is on the line should be home hiding under the bed, not leading this country or the men and women who defend the ideals bound up in her flag.

Speaking of which, on the way out of town late on Memorial Day, I realized I’d left the house without my work shirts. I stopped at Westgate Mall in Spartanburg, S.C., to buy a couple. Along the curb, in the grass strip around the perimeter of the mall, stuck into the ground every ten feet was a small American flag on a stick. Hundreds of them. Some were knocked over. Others already lay in the gutter.

If we successfully peel away part of our First Amendment with the proposed flag bill, flag desecration (blasphemy, in essence) will become a federal crime. Proponents will, true to form, enlist lobbyists to help write a retailer-friendly definition of desecration into the U.S. Code.

The “curbs and gutters” exemption will demonstrate how unserious the amendment’s sponsors always were.

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