Center for Strategic Communication

Of the many ways in which foreign populations express their displeasure with America, few are as symbolically hurtful as burning the American flag. Today, NBC News produced an article covering this phenomenon and the logistics of flag burning in Karachi, Pakistan.

In Karachi, flag burning has become an industry for some. We’ve all seen the flags—often crude versions of Old Glory with the wrong number of large white stars burning in pictures and on the news—but where do they come from? It turns out that the production of these flags has become a traditional business of supply and demand, forming a livelihood for some individuals.

The article takes an interesting tact on this phenomenon, exploring the role of flag burning as an alternative to violence. NBC interviewed a Pakistani flag burner who stated:

Isn’t flag burning positive, compared to American atrocities? And also compared to the Taliban? We’re not attacking mosques. … We’re not targeting American embassies. We’re not killing anyone. Nor are we flying drones around. We’re just burning flags, mere pieces of cloth, and then we’re done. It’s over.

Image Credit: Flickr – Laura Padgett

Yet to Americans, that piece of cloth represents much more. It represents the struggle that went into building this nation, the fight for equality and civil rights, and the blood of those who sacrificed to defend it. As Americans, we pledge our allegiance to that flag, and burning it is a very personal matter. I personally will never condone flag burning (though it is rightly constitutionally protected) and find it reprehensible for these reasons. Yet despite our aversion, it’s important to try to understand the context of why people do it and how American foreign policy fits into that picture.

Interestingly, the producer of the flags to be burned states that he “believe[s] in limits,” arguing that it’s a civilized way of international protesting. Contrary to the offensive nature of flag burning, the producer, who also creates effigies and prints protest posters, contends that he exercises editorial control over protest material production to remove inappropriate language and suggest more “civilized” words. Is flag burning more civilized than physically attacking a country you disagree with? We must objectively say yes.

Let’s go back to the words of the flag producer:

We’re just burning flags, mere pieces of cloth, and then we’re done. It’s over.

Is it really over after the deed is done? Does anger against the United States dissipate? What do people do after they have gone home after a flag burning?

A key question to answer is: how much of these protests are translating into actual violence? This is an element that must be understood to determine if flag burning is simply a form of protest, or if those involved are planning more sinister actions. We must also seek to understand to what degree these protests endanger traditional diplomacy efforts and the challenges faced by members of the Pakistani government attempting to pursue diplomatic cooperation with the United States. If they are harmless expressions of anger and frustration, we have an obligation to understand this.

Why does any of this matter in a country with which we continually have disagreements? Why does this matter in a country in which we located and killed Osama bin Laden? In a country which blocked NATO supply lines to Afghanistan for months? In a country where public opinion of America is horrendously low?

The answer is it matters because the people of this country are important partners in finding a resolution to the problems we face in this region. It matters because these people will ultimately be key in decreasing the threat of terrorism to the United States. We cannot simply dismiss their shouts of anger out of hand as irreconcilable without making an effort to understand why it is that they’re angry. Instead, we must find ways to work with them to collaboratively solve the problems we face together.