It is perfectly possible that as a child in the 1950s I was simply unobservant when it came to the American flag. Our nation’s then-forty-eight-star banner flew over the public schools, at the post office, at the courthouse. It flew at many a factory, which were more plentiful in those days than now. If you were a Boy Scout, it flew on the parade ground at camp, having been raised each morning, lowered before sunset, and properly triangle-folded for the night. The flag never flew at night. It was so routine a presence that it required no keenness of imagination to notice; it imparted no message but the obvious one that this was America and that was a good thing. Fluttering over official buildings, the flag was part of the visual landscape of those times, the natural order of things.
Not natural at all, and far rarer to see, was the flag flying at half-staff. It got your attention. My first memory of this experience was in May 1959, when flags went to half-staff for the death of John Foster Dulles. The secretary of state for most of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency and an ardent cold warrior, Dulles was without doubt an eminent man, perhaps the most eminent to fill that office since World War II—with the possible exception of Henry Kissinger, the architect of détente, for whom the flags have not yet been struck to half. As everyone then understood, the flag at ritual half-staff was reserved for the passing of a figure of distinction with a record of high-level service to the nation (the political shading could vary). It bade us ordinary citizens to pause our thoughts and salute the one who had passed from the scene. This, in my memory, did not happen often.
Since 1959, eight presidents have died, their passings commanding national mourning and Old Glory’s lowering to half-staff. The following observation is hardly scientific, but since that time—and particularly in the last decade or so—the bar seems to have fallen considerably as to who gets to be thus publicly honored. It is tricky not to sound exclusionist here, for on any given day hundreds of worthy fellow citizens die, men and women who did their communities good and laudable service, some in public office, some not. One now-common occurrence is governors’ proclamations that state and national flags be flown at half-staff statewide to honor a police officer killed in the line of duty (often as not these days by criminal gunfire). Several websites keep track of half-staff orders, nationally and by state, and those honoring fallen law-enforcement personnel comprise the clear majority. In Wisconsin, Deputy Sheriff Kaitie Leising of St. Croix County, who was killed in the line of duty this last May, may not be of the same order of eminence as John Foster Dulles and others of exalted rank, yet honoring her with a half-staff order across the Badger State was eminently worthy.
It was President Eisenhower (Dulles’s boss) who first tried to set some standards, though not hard and fast rules, for when the flag is to be flown half-staff on federal buildings and facilities, including naval vessels at sea. These rules amount to a graded scale of federal honorees and corresponding half-staff protocol. At the top of the scale are sitting and former presidents, whose death prompts flags to fly at half-staff nationwide for thirty days; toward the other end of the scale, the minority leader of the House of Representatives merits half-staff from the day of death until interment. Flags in Washington, D.C., go to half-staff the day of and for one day after the deaths of all sitting senators, congressmen, and resident commissioners of Puerto Rico. The president has discretionary power to declare half-staffing for other officials, including foreign dignitaries, and to mark periods of mourning for national tragedies. State governors are granted parallel authority, which is where the plethora of half-staff observances for fallen police and first responders comes from. Most of these individuals, like Deputy Sheriff Leising, we rightly regard as courageous individuals, even heroes. Others we might wonder about: the former lieutenant governor of New York Richard Ravitch; the Maryland state senator Norman Stone; the New Jersey commissioner for environmental protection Robert Shinn Jr.?
It is good, I suppose, that the deserving many should be honored along with the renowned few, though I wonder if spreading the glory does not also dilute the symbol. Flying the American flag signifies the objective reality of state and nation, and reaffirms that these entities, which have long existed and still do, demand respect, command allegiance, and may even require our sacrifice. Flags at half-staff ought therefore to prompt us toward more than sentimental remembrance of individuals to whom our hearts naturally go out—young policemen and women, perhaps with young families, cut down too soon. A sharp salute, or a hand over the heart, also seems called for to honor these individuals for the citizens they were, the great members of the state and nation to which we all belong as citizens ourselves. What the eye beholds the heart may learn to honor, but not if the eye beholds too much of it, too often. My experience and judgment are anecdotal, but the flag at my rural post office seems half-staff at least half the time; contrast, the departure from normal practice, catches the eye, but not if that contrast becomes routine. In this sense, less half-staffing would be more.
Something else may be at work here as well. Creatures of a now-deeply-rooted therapeutic culture, we desperately want to please all and offend none. Everybody gets a prize. Every performance stirs a standing ovation. More and more worthies get half-staffed. Whereas flying the flag, at full- or half-staff, once had normative meaning across a vast and diverse population, it is often reduced today to a politically partisan gesture. This did not happen overnight but came about in response to provocative alternatives. In the 1960s, for the first time since the Civil War, an internal adversary to our national ensign arose when the militant young, their banners festooned with the peace symbol, were more likely to burn the old flag than salute it. Today it is the rainbow banner that is displayed on front porches in our university towns and shares pride of place with the Stars and Stripes on our embassies abroad. Why not, I wonder, the flag of Vatican City or the Muslim star and crescent or the Star of David instead?
All of this marks our national belittling. We are more sensitive and less serious. Flags ought to rebuke this attitude. Even, perhaps especially, at half-staff, they call upon us to look up and to pause our thoughts for a moment. This is unnatural to millions whose default outlook is to stare inward, within themselves; they stumble along, inwardly focused and outwardly oblivious. Your flag is as good as mine, they say. That which we once regarded with respect, even reverence, now hardly gets a nod, full-staff or half. When I see all those flags so often at half-staff, it gets less of a nod from me, too. I wish it did not.