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  The Civic Responsibility and Consciousness of War   

Kiss the flag? Burn the flag? Support the troops? Stop the war? If you want to know why former school teacher and fitness coach Doug Wight went on a flag burning spree just before Christmas, maybe you should ask him. It seems that few people have done that. Newspaper articles that appeared presented few details.

Wight was in court on January 24, and his trial is set for April.   The Associated Press filed the first news articles on the morning of Christmas Eve. “Anarchist Group Behind Local Flag Burning,” read the banner headline. “Police say a flag-burning incident in Northampton may be the work of an anti-American anarchist group,” the story began.[[1]]   

It was not an anarchist group, not an anarchist, and it was not anti-American. It was only Doug Wight, a former public school teacher and patriotic citizen spurred to action by a combination of frustration, outrage and conscience.

Doug Wight is the primary suspect in four flag related incidents in the weeks just prior to Christmas 2007. But contrary to what most people believe, three of the five flags destroyed were on Federal Property. The flag at the Greenfield (MA) Post Office was lowered off the pole and burned in a dumpster. Two flags on the highway overpass above the Massachusetts Turnpike in Palmer (MA) were burned on December 7. One flag was taken from someone’s yard and a note left to say it would be burned. The fifth flag was burned where it hung from a tree outside someone’s home.   

“A man police have linked to four vandalism incidents around the Pioneer Valley said he felt called to burn American flags as a way to draw public attention to what he sees as abuses of power by the U.S. government,” the Greenfield Recorder began on December 27, 2007.  

The story is not as simple as it would appear, much to the dismay and celebration of those both for and against what Doug Wight did, and the important points of consideration have been swept away with the ashes of the flags. As usual, the media and the news-consuming public have distilled a very complex and intriguing story down to a collection of sound bites and jingoisms.  

Several hours before his arrest Wight gave an interview to the local Daily Hampshire Gazette newspaper. He said he hoped his actions would inspire others to take a critical look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he says are illegal, and other policies of the Bush administration, like the USA PATRIOT ACT, which he says violates the Constitution.  

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“I felt called, as a kind of duty and responsibility,” Wight told the Gazette, “to try and wake up the American people in any way I can without harming or hurting them. If I have to go to jail and suffer to help put an end to these state-sponsored atrocities and abuses, so be it. Such is the price of true liberty!”  

News of Doug Wight’s arrest prompted yahoo reactions from all sides. Some people extrapolate from the string of flag desecrations that Wight is a terrorist, a menace to society and an anti-war radical who should be tried for treason. Others believe that Wight is himself a symbol of freedom and courage that the United States is meant to stand for. Some peace activists complained about his tactics.  

“Why would a 65 year-old man, a former public school teacher, high school coach, health and fitness consultant, and YMCA Director, decide that he must start burning American flags?” Doug Wight wrote in explanation of his actions. “I felt it was time I stepped up some tough action that would incite, anger, arouse, and hopefully move some Americans to take stock of the values and principles our country is actually representing.”   

My reasons for writing this story are many. The citizens of the United States are hardly able to communicate about diverse and difficult issues to come to some agreement about truths  underlying the real problems we face as communities and people.

Most people believe they have a right to say or do this or that, but they are quick to deny the same rights to others when others try to say or do something they don’t agree with. This tendency plays out in public spaces, in issues of freedom of speech and press.  

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Freedom of Speech is the right for you to say something that I don’t want to hear and for me to say something you don’t want to hear. It is not the right to silence those with whom we disagree, as much as we all—including myself—would sometimes like to do that. One is freedom, the other is fascism. People are confused about the difference.  


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keith harmon snow is an independent journalist, war correspondent and photographer. He has also worked as a genocide investigator and consultant to the United Nations and other international bodies. He has won three Project Censored awards for his (more...)

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