Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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Flag-burning ignites heated debate
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   07/29/2005)

So why do you think that Maryville kid burned the flag? my friend asked as we cleaned up the litter from bottle rockets that some teens had set off in the street.

I wouldn't presume to answer for him, I said. But let's get our facts straight. He's not a kid—he's an adult. And he didn't just burn a flag. He stole it from somebody's yard and made a mess with it.

Sure, and he's spent nine days in jail—time enough already I'd say--but it's not the stealing and littering that has people all hot and bothered. If he'd just stole it, you'd write it off as a teenage prank, slap his hand and send him home. But he burned it too.

Do we have to go there? I stuffed a handful of Roman candle husks into a bag.

We already did, my friend said. Don't you read your own newspaper? Big headline: “Flag-burner's parents mystified by behavior.”

Yeah, I believe they blamed it on the booze. Kid got drunk, burned a flag, so what? It was the booze talking.

I don't buy that. You don't torch a flag on the Fourth of July just for kicks. If you're sober enough to do that, you're sober enough to know what you're doing. Imagine holding a flame up against the threads of a flag.

I couldn't do it.

I should hope not. But then, you get to have your say every week. But what if you were a kid worried about the future of the world and your own place in it, as kids tend to do, and if you'd read enough to know our government's been lying to us—

There's no indication the kid had studied on any of that.

--then in some alcoholic haze your anger might come out and you might burn a flag even if you only dimly knew you were making a statement. And face it, burning a flag makes a statement. Supreme Court says it's a form of protected speech.

How's that?

Think about it. Old Glory was all over the TV and newspapers when we went into Iraq, and you see it in front yards—as in this case--and flying from SUVs and printed on decals stuck on the backs of vans. And when you see it in those places you think, here's somebody who loves our country, right? But what if you thought our government was perverting the flag—changing its very meaning--by committing bad acts in the name of God and country?

Bad acts?

Well, yes, what if our leaders lied about the reasons we went to war in Iraq. And what if the government exposed a CIA agent in an attempt to cover up some of those lies? And what if the government encouraged abusing prisoners they mostly picked up at random, like the old woman they rode like a donkey in Abu Ghraib and the boys they degraded sexually and sicced the dogs on and hooked up to electrodes? And what if you'd read that the government used napalm and shells made from depleted uranium in places like Fallujah, and that some people had lined their pockets with the $200 billion plus we've committed to the war and the hundreds of billions more in military outlays? And what if our leaders had put millions of people at risk by ignoring global warming for the past quarter-century? And ran up a huge national debt to Japan and China in the name of tax relief? And what if you read Dick Cheney had secretly drawn up contingency plans to nuke Iran, as “The American Conservative” magazine reported recently, and you heard that we were building a bunch of permanent military bases in Iraq up near the oilfields, and what if some experts were saying the return of a military draft is inevitable and you were only 18 and such hints and allegations were stewing in your brain and you were tired of all the mindless flag-waving and….

OK, assuming the kid was even remotely aware of such things, what's your point?

All I'm saying is….


Kid's got a right to his opinion.