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The Principles Behind the Flag
An Essay by Jim Sollisch

audio Listen to Sollisch's essay.

Oct. 5, 2001 -- We turn to the flag instinctively when we've been attacked. We fly it at half staff when we grieve. It's a symbol of hope. It's an article of faith. It's shorthand for the one thing all Americans can agree on at times like this: We love our country. In that respect, the flag has the power to bring together Americans of every race and background.

But at times in recent history, the power of the flag has also pulled us apart. The flag was flying from practically every rooftop during World War II, as we herded 110,000 Japanese-Americans -- two-thirds of whom were US citizens -- into interment camps.

"Right now we're filled with passion and righteousness, feelings that are completely justified given the circumstances. But we should remember that the Pledge of Allegiance is not just to the flag but to liberty and justice for all."

Jim Sollisch

During the McCarthy hearings, fear trumped freedom, and we trampled the rights of many of our citizens in the name of patriotism. Ironically, many of the enemies of democracy, including militia groups like the ones Timothy McVeigh associated with, proudly fly the flag.

I hope during this crisis, as we rally around the flag, we will also rally around the Constitution. I hope we'll remember that we're a nation built on reason. Our first act was not to create a flag or a symbol, but to create a document, a declaration that set forth certain basic principles.

Later, some of the best minds of the age of reason debated for months to create a Constitution and Bill or Rights. They were acutely sensitive to abuses of governmental power. After all, they were accused of treason by the British government. They knew how quickly freedom can be lost to accusation and so they devoted nearly half the Bill of Rights to protecting the accused.

A CNN-Gallup poll taken several days after the terrorist attacks found that 49 percent of us would support forcing Americans of Arab descent to carry identification cards. An even higher percentage would support special searches of Arab American citizens. Many in that majority were up in arms about the practice of racial profiling by police just six months ago, but few flags were flying then.

When we wave the flag, we sometimes stop thinking about the Constitution. Right now we're filled with passion and righteousness, feelings that are completely justified given the circumstances. But we should remember that the Pledge of Allegiance is not just to the flag but to liberty and justice for all.

Jim Sollisch is a writer based in Cleveland, Ohio.