William Rivers Pitt | Our Flag, Too

Wednesday, 02 April 2003 19:42 By William Rivers Pitt, Truthout | name.

Our Flag, Too
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Thursday 3 April 2003

The residents of an unassuming house, tucked away in a quiet corner of a small New England college campus, have found themselves at the center of a disturbing fight for the basic right to express their opinion as Americans.  Seven students at 44 Howard Street on the Wheaton College campus, located in the rural community of Norton, Massachusetts, have discovered, with suddenness and fury, how difficult it is today to speak your mind in a nation divided by war.

It started on the day the Bush administration took this nation to war in defiance of the international community and with little, if any, justifiable rationale.  The American attack upon Iraq, fraught with all the terrors of American and civilian casualties, spiraling regional hostilities and the surety of reciprocal attacks here at home, convinced these students that their beloved country was in grave danger.  The leadership of this nation, and the deadly course they chose, motivated the seven in this small house to make a large statement of disapproval.

And so, on that day, the young men and women of 44 Howard hung an American flag upside-down outside of their house.

There is no question but that this is a loaded symbol.  Generation after generation of Americans have saluted this flag, served under it, died under it, and have been wrapped in it when finally delivered to the darkness of the earth or the depths of the ocean.  The flag represents, for many Americans, all that is great and true and noble about this nation; it is a snapshot of our idealized hopes and dreams for the country we are and the country we wish to be.  Of course, these kids were asking for trouble by doing this.  People do not react rationally when confronted with an American flag flying in anything other than an upright, orderly fashion.

44 Howard got trouble, in spades.

Some days after placing the flag on their house in this manner, a truckload of local men pulled up to the front door.  This took some doing; the house is not located on any road easily accessible by the main streets of Norton, but is buried in the campus near the central quadrangle.  Six men, whose ages ranged from between forty to fifty years old, stormed into the house while two of the residents were there.  The residents locked themselves in a room and called campus security, while them men crashed through the house, pounding on bedroom doors and yelling, "Come out, you cowards!"  It was clear from their actions that these men intended violence.

Rocks have been thrown through the windows of 44 Howard.  Death threats have been telephoned to the house and left on answering machines.  Cars from the town of Norton have constantly driven passed the house with passengers screaming threats and insults.  A dead fish was strapped to the front door, symbolizing a death threat as per the movie 'The Godfather.'  The harassment grew to such a fevered intensity that the residents of the house were ordered by campus security to leave the premises for three days, because their safety could not be guaranteed.

As of this printing, there has not been one arrest made in these matters by the Norton police.

One might feel that the people who have so vigorously attacked the seven Wheaton students have a moral basis for their actions, as it appears on the surface to be a case of righteous and patriotic citizens defending the American flag from desecration.  This is not, in fact, the case, because hanging an American flag upside-down is not an act of desecration. 

It is an act of desperation, and indeed, of patriotism. 

The seven students of 44 Howard have family and friends serving in the war at this moment.  They do not wish to see their loved ones killed in an irresponsible act of military adventurism, nor do they wish to see harm done to their own country because of this, nor do they wish to see the innocents of Iraq slaughtered in the mayhem.  This is the very definition of patriotism: the defense of family, friends, country and life itself.

The basic message behind an upside down flag is, "Distress. Send Help."  The symbolism of the reversed flag began in the nautical realm; sailors at sea in distress would fly the flag upside-down before abandoning ship, or as a signal to other passing ships that they were in dire need of help.  More recently, this symbol was used by troops in the field in Vietnam, who flew the flag in reverse to signal their distress over the manner in which they were being used by their commanders and political leaders.

In 2001, the use of the American flag as a symbol of distress was codified in law.  U.S. Code, Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 8(a) reads as follows:

The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.

The war in Iraq presents a dire threat to not only the American soldiers and Iraqi civilians engaged in the fighting, but to American citizens on the home front who will doubtlessly come under terrorist attacks in retribution for the assault upon Iraq.  Furthermore, the very fabric of our national ideal is in mortal danger from this war; when said attacks do occur in America, the strictures of Martial Law and the Patriot Act will bring to an end 227 years of Constitutional rule in America.  

Distress.  Send help.

Combine the clear language of Title 4 with the unambiguous wording of the First Amendment of the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The men and women of 44 Howard are well within their rights, and well within the strictures of common American morality, to use the flag as they have.  The wretched irony in all of this is that those men who stormed into that house to do violence to these students are, in fact, acting in a manner that would make Saddam Hussein proud.  In the guise of defending freedom, they would deny it with clenched fist in a home invasion as disturbing as anything done by the worst stormtroopers in all of history.

There is another irony here, codified in corollary sections of Title 4:

The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.

- Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 8(d)

The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.

- Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 8(i)

Those patriotic men who saw fit to break into a private home in order to attack the young men and women who live there might, next time, turn their energies upon every cell phone company, every car dealership, a number of clothing manufacturers, every store that sells American flag paper napkins, and all of the myriad businesses from sea to shining sea that whore out the flag to sell their goods in a manner totally in contravention with the strictures of Title 4.

But that would be hard.  Seven youths are a far easier target for violent desires wrapped, as it were, in the flag of patriotic zeal.

There is more to all of this than different interpretations of the symbolism of the flag.  This is about the very definition of patriotism.  It has become all too clear of late that Americans are required to "Support The Troops."  This has become a euphemism for supporting the war.  If you do not support the war, you do not support the troops and are therefore un-American and possibly a terrorist.  This is a scurrilous skewing of rhetoric with one purpose alone: To intimidate dissenters into silence.

Let it be known that those who stand against this attack on Iraq are the brothers and sisters, the wives and husbands, the friends and family and countrymen of those currently serving.  When a man or woman puts on the uniform and swears the oath of service, they are taking a leap of faith that their lives will not be spent to no purpose by those who would lead this nation.  Let it be known that those who stand against this war believe these men and women in uniform currently serving in Iraq have had that faith betrayed.  Those who stand against this war also stand with these men and women, and demand that their blood not be spilled in vain.  If that is not "Supporting The Troops," then those words have no meaning at all.

Perhaps the students at 44 Howard should have known better.  Perhaps it is not wise to use so powerful a symbol in so tense a time.  Those who would attack these young men and women for their beliefs and their speech, however, miss the central issue.  We who stand against this war are also Americans.  We also love this country.  We also honor our veterans.  We see our beloved nation charging into the darkness day by day and hour by hour, and no intimidation can break us of our need to speak out loudly and vehemently about this.

It is our flag, too.


This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is a New York Times best-selling author of two books - "War On Iraq" (with Scott Ritter) available now from Context Books, and "The Greatest Sedition is Silence," available in June 2003 from Pluto Press. He teaches high school in Boston, MA.

Scott Lowery contributed research to this report.

Last modified on Monday, 21 April 2008 13:38