The long legs of the law

What a poignant little story [“Flag Fight, Aug. 1].

Consider: A relatively inexperienced Sheriff’s deputy made an embarrassingly dreadful error in judgment. Just returned from a seven-month tour of duty in Iraq, the young deputy resolves to enforce a legally obscure North Carolina statute written in 1917 to protect the American flag, without seeking the slightest bit of advice from his superiors. Unfortunately for the young officer, there are a couple of other laws also on the books that seek to protect the actual liberty for which the flag is merely a symbol. He is going out to enforce a statute that has about as much legal substance as dust in the wind.

It is a quiet, sunny morning in our beautiful Asheville. No one has informed the officer of drug activity or domestic violence or burglary or dangerously swerving cars. This assignment is rather different—it’s flag-protection day in the neighborhood.

The young civil servant has set out on his futile mission because of the urgent distress of one of his buddies up at the National Guard Armory who, I imagine, had long desired to take down this offensive flag of dissent. How dare these people act as though this is actually some kind of free country where citizens are allowed—even encouraged—to express their bothersome opinions. How dare these people offend someone with their hippie customs. How dare these types question the hundreds of billions of dollars being spent in Iraq, while the old bridges in this country are failing from disrepair.

So out he goes, into the sunshine with his squad car and loaded gun, to force these people to show respect to the American flag.  If this story were not so potentially perilous, it would be comical.

Reasonable people have apparently agreed as to the central issue of flag desecration. Sheriff Duncan has now dropped all the interesting charges. It may have occurred to him that this story was not only a public-relations nightmare, but also that a monkey in a suit could probably have sent the young deputy to jail.

Yet another misfortune confronting the Sheriff is that this gloomy little story has legs (to use an old newspaper expression). It is a story ripe with symbolic and literal meanings. The young officer has stirred a hornets’ nest right here in the middle of August. If George Washington and John Adams and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson had themselves been too squeamish to misplace a couple of flags and other symbols of British nationalism, we would all still be drinking hot tea with cream. I like my cold, syrupy tea just fine, thank you. I drink it from a mason jar while wearing my Liberty overalls, engaged in conversation with a thick mountain accent.

This episode raises scratchy questions about how hard it is to live in and maintain a genuine democracy. What the heck were they doing up there at the Armory? Is it a good idea for our deputies to do their official paperwork up at there? Should county deputies take marching orders from members of the 105th United States Military Police Battalion? Can the police enter our homes to effect an arrest for our nonviolent protests? Shouldn’t Mr. Scarborough at least be on administrative leave while county leadership reviews his suitability to act as a professional civil servant? Can we help him in some way to redirect his enthusiasm?

Finally, some will continue to argue that the flag must be protected from those who would use it in protest. Others, such as I, will claim that the flag and the liberty it symbolizes have proven strong enough to stand up to the process of dissent. The flag is a powerful symbol, muscular enough to protect itself. I might even assert that an American’s use of the flag in protest is itself connected in some wonderful way to all that makes America justly strong, free and enduring.

Yes—this little story has legs.

— Jeff Powers

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One thought on “The long legs of the law

  1. lokel

    Apparently Sheriff Duncan has assessed his suitability to be a public servant: he is still on the job.

    Post-traumatic stress disorder and all!

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