Local veterans speak out on protections for Old Glory

As might be expected, veterans’ advocates in The Observer coverage area applaud, in principle, President-elect Donald Trump’s recent call for penalties for anyone desecrating or defacing the American flag.

“That flag is our national symbol,” declared Kearny longtime veterans’ leader Anthony Capitti, “and I think if you’re going to willfully burn the flag, you should be punished.”

But, with one exception, they say that meting out any penalty should be provided for through appropriate federal legislation enacted by Congress.

And that is an approach that even Trump’s defeated chief adversary – former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton – could live with, as we were recently reminded by Philadelphia.cbslocal.com.

When she was serving as U.S. senator of New York, Clinton co-sponsored – with GOP Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah – the Flag Protection Act of 2005, which mandated jail time and a fine for anyone convicted of “destroying or damaging a U.S. flag with the primary purpose and intent to incite or produce imminent violence or a breach of the peace.”

The bill would have imposed a one-year prison term and $100,000 fine for burning the flag – or two years behind bars and a $250,000 fine for the same offense on federal land.

Because the bill never made it out of the Judiciary Committee, it never came to the floor for a vote.

But now that Trump has made his pronouncement, the time may be ripe for a reconsideration of the issue. In his Nov. 29 tweet, the president-elect called for something less punitive in the pocketbook but more serious for someone civic-minded when he said: “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”

To a man, each local veteran’s leader acknowledged that, as of now, burning the flag is a First Amendment right guaranteed by the Constitution as a means of protesting government action.

(In 1989, and again in 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was a protected action, first in the case “Texas v. Johnson,” and then, in “United States v. Eichman,” decided in each case by a 5-4 vote, thereby reversing a precedent set in 1968 when flag burnings by protestors at the Dems National Convention in Chicago roused jurists to ban the practice.)

But as much as they are in agreement to follow the law, local veterans’ proponents are not persuaded by the high tribunal’s interpretation.

Capitti, deputy mayor of Kearny, said he would back a change in the law “to have some consequences” for an affront to the flag. “I would support that,” he said. “Why not?”

Tom Witt, commander of the Lyndhurst Veterans Alliance, acknowledged that currently, “flag burning is protected by the Constitution but it’s still a very unsavory thing to do. Veterans have been trying to pass a flag amendment for years. …

“Most vets I know are heavily behind it – we’re in favor of flag protection because the flag symbolizes those who fought for it and shed blood for it and our way of life,” he said.

Bob Salvini, the American Legion’s Bergen County commander for the past five years, also supports an amendment “because the flag needs to be protected – many have died to protect this country and the flag is our symbol. Talk to our POWs and you’ll find out that that little patch of red, white and blue is something that kept them alive. Desecrating the flag disrespects their memory.

“Now, hopefully with Trump, things will be different,” he added.

Bill Steimel, Nutley Disabled American Veterans Chapter 42 post commander, understands that today, flag burning is protected by the Constitution but it sticks in his gullet. “I don’t agree with that but you gotta follow the law.”

Like his peers, he’d prefer to see a change in the law but “the penalty should be left up to the courts – nothing too severe. To be honest, I’m more worried that [Trump] is going to privatize the V.A. (Veterans Administration), which I’m not happy about.”

Then there’s Nutley’s Steve Rogers, an Air Force veteran during the Vietnam War and a key part of the U.S. Naval Intelligence after 2001. Locally, as Public Affairs director, he has championed veterans’ issues on behalf of local vets.

“Trump is a great patriot and he loves this country,” Rogers said. “Now there’s a First Amendment right when they burn the flag. But the way that we change behavior is through education. We have somehow lost our way when it comes to educating our young people to the great accomplishments of this country. But we can’t legislate behavior – that has to come from the heart so that when you educate the young about the sacrifices made by our men on the fighting fields and by our women on the homefront, and tie that into what the stars and stripes are all about, they’re going to think twice before they burn the flag because, otherwise, they’ll be tramping on your mother, your father, grandfather and grandmother.”

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