NEW YORK — As a young boy, I loved the American flag. I'd lead my younger sisters in patriotic parades up and down the sidewalk, waving the flag, blowing a whistle and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance over and over until my sisters begged me to let them go back to their Easy-Bake Oven.
I loved singing the national anthem. I won an essay contest on "What the Flag Means to Me." I decorated my bicycle with little American flags for a Fourth of July parade and won a prize for that too. I became an Eagle Scout and proudly promised to do my duty to God and country. And every year I asked to be the one who planted the flag on the grave of my uncle, a paratrooper who was killed in World War II. I was taught to admire his sacrifice, and I hoped to grow up and do my part, as he had, to keep us free.
But, in high school, things changed. Nine boys from my school came back home from Vietnam in boxes. Draped over each coffin was the American flag. I knew that they also had made a sacrifice. But their sacrifice wasn't for their country: They were sent to die by men who lied to them. Those men -- presidents, senators, government officials -- wrapped themselves in the flag too, hoping that their lies would never be questioned, never be discovered. They wrapped themselves in the very flag that was placed on the coffins of my friends and neighbors. I stopped singing the national anthem at football games, and I stopped putting out the flag.
I realize now I never should have stopped.
For too long now we have abandoned our flag to those who see it as a symbol of war and dominance, as a way to crush dissent at home. Flags are flying from the back of SUVs, rising high above car dealerships, plastering the windows of businesses and adorning paper bags from fast-food restaurants. But these flags are intended to send a message: "You're either with us or you're against us," "Bring it on!" or "Watch what you say, watch what you do."
Those who absconded with our flag now use it as a weapon against those who question America's course. They remind me of that famous 1976 photo of an anti-busing demonstrator in Boston thrusting a large American flag on a pole into the stomach of the first black man he encountered. These so-called patriots hold the flag tightly in their grip and, in a threatening pose, demand that no one ask questions. Those who speak out find themselves shunned at work, harassed at school, booed off Oscar stages. The flag has become a muzzle, a piece of cloth stuffed into the mouths of those who dare to ask questions.
I think it's time for those of us who love this country -- and everything it should stand for -- to reclaim our flag from those who would use it to crush rights and freedoms, both here at home and overseas. We need to redefine what it means to be a proud American.
If you are one of those who love what President Bush has done for this country and believe you must blindly follow the president to deserve to fly the flag, you should ask yourself some difficult questions about just how proud you are of the America we now inhabit:
Are you proud that one in six children lives in poverty in America?
Are you proud that 40 million adult Americans are functional illiterates?
Are you proud that the bulk of the jobs being created these days are low- and minimum-wage jobs?
Are you proud of asking your fellow Americans to live on $5.15 an hour?
Are you proud that, according to a National Geographic Society survey, 85% of young adult Americans cannot find Iraq on the map (and 11% cannot find the United States!)?
Are you proud that the rest of the world, which poured out its heart to us after Sept. 11, now looks at us with disdain and disgust?
Are you proud that nearly 3 billion people on this planet do not have access to clean drinking water when we have the resources and technology to remedy this immediately?
Are you proud of the fact that our president sent our soldiers off to a war that had nothing to do with the self-defense of this country?
If these things represent what it means to be an American these days -- and I am an American -- should I hang my head in shame? No. Instead, I intend to perform what I believe is my patriotic duty. I can't think of a more American thing to do than raise questions -- and demand truthful answers -- when our leader wants to send our sons and daughters off to die in a war.
If we don't do that -- the bare minimum -- for those who offer to defend our country, then we have failed them and ourselves. They offer to die for us, if necessary, so that we can be free. All they ask in return is that we never send them into harm's way unless it is absolutely necessary. And with this war, we have broken faith with our troops by sending them off to be killed and maimed for wrong and immoral reasons.
This is the true state of disgrace we are living in. I hope we can make it up someday to these brave kids (and older men and women in our reserves and National Guard). They deserve an apology, they deserve our thanks -- and a raise -- and they deserve a big parade with lots of flags.
I would like to lead that parade, carrying the largest flag. And I would like the country to proclaim that never again will a war be fought unless it is our last resort.
Let's create a world in which, when people see the Stars and Stripes, they will think of us as the people who brought peace to the world, who brought good-paying jobs to all citizens and clean water for the world to drink.
In anticipation of that day, I am putting my flag out today, with hope and with pride.