Please do not misinterpret what I am about to say. I believe that the Confederate flag is disgraceful. It represents a corrupted heritage that is fundamentally rooted in chauvinism, bigotry, segregation, and militarism. I believe that it should be torn down from every monument, hallway, rooftop, and courthouse in our nation. The sooner the better.
But why not take down the United States flag as well? After-all, the two atomic bombs that eviscerated Nagasaki and Hiroshima were not dropped in the name of the Confederate flag. Nor were the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. Afghanistan, and Iraq, fought to preserve the national security of the “Stars and Bars.”
Over the past decade, hundreds of presidentially authorized drone strikes have illegally and immorally murdered innocent civilians in Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. These hellfire missiles are delivered with the seal of our nation’s most revered and reproduced logo.
In my opinion, all flags are dishonorable because they instigate some of the most destructive passions known to the human condition, including tribalism, religious intolerance, crude forms of patriotism, jingoism, xenophobia, and even genocide. Nearly every week, there is a mosque, schoolhouse, public building, or some other inviolable space that is pulverized by remote control missiles launched from thousands of miles away in the United States. Serving under the banner of the American flag, countless American civilians, politicians, commanders and soldiers are responsible for the indiscriminate killing of innocent women and children. These too are brown and black people who had their lives cut short. These too are victims of racial and political violence. These too are hate crimes. Yet these Charleston’s will not be reported on CNN or written about in USA Today.
Let me clear. It is not my intention to be disrespectful of military personnel and veterans. I have the utmost respect for them as human beings. In fact, military service runs deep through the bloodline of my immediate and extended family. More importantly, I try to perceive and accept them as unique children of God with certain inalienable rights. I have no authority to judge anyone.
But that being said, there is a significant difference between judgment and respect. Just because I can honor every soldier as an inheritor of God’s grace, does not mean I respect soldiers because they simply pledged an oath, don a uniform, or brandish a licensed firearm. If a solider blindly follows orders because they are afraid to speak out, I have no respect for that; and when soldiers act as if they have my permission to needlessly waste the lives of civilians because they are “duty bound,” I have no respect for that either.
Let me also be clear that I am not calling for a universal human flag to replace the many flags now in existence. I do not wish to see the United Nations emblem on every municipal building and public uniform from Chicago to Cairo. On the contrary, what we need to move towards is a flagless world. No more oaths and no more pledges of allegiance. To paraphrase Gandhi, “the only tyrant in this world that we should truly obey is that still small voice within.”
Moreover, I do not think that demonizing a single obnoxious flag is what we want to focus our moral attention on right now. In some ways, this storyline is a manufactured diversion engineered by opportunist politicians and greedy advertisers. Notice the subtle ways that this story has seized the nation’s focus even more than the heroic actions of family members who forgave the assailant.
If we really care about stopping these massacres in the future, we should be seeking ways to take responsibility for the violence that we all participate in and perpetuate through our devotion to nationalism, endless warfare, cultural and racial superiority, specism, and every form of hateful egoism. This process of honest introspection is far less comfortable than passively watching pundits debate flag controversies on television, but it will go a long way towards making each and everyone of us accountable for the degree of hostility that exists in our own minds.
On a more profound level than racial vengeance, it was the prospect of a “purer” nationhood- one fought for and defended through homicidal violence- that motivated Dylan Roof to carry out his evil mission. He was willing to kill and die for his concept of a new Rhodesia. Yet how many readers are willing to kill, or let someone else kill, for their concept of America? I suspect quite a few.
George C. Payne
Founder of Gandhi Earth Keepers International
Visiting Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at
Finger Lakes Community College