Last month I promised to walk everybody step by step through the process by which I constructed a plot for one of my two monthly assignments. However, halfway through the piece, I realized that running that column this month would really spoil the story I was writing about for anyone who read it when it came out five months from now. So, what I've decided to do is sit on that particular essay for six months so when it's finally published, anyone who's going to read the story discussed therein will already have. Fair enough? So what am I going to do instead? Well, have I got a burning issue (ahem) to talk about this time...!
Ever since the Supreme Court ruled last summer that it was now legal to burn the American flag as a form of protest, people have been coming up to me asking when I'm going to do a story showing Captain America's view on the subject. After all, I've been writing Cap's comic book longer than anybody except Stan Lee so if I don't know Cap's character by now, I should be yanked off the book, right? I've given the issue considerable thought, and the first conclusion I've reached is that at this point in time, I think Cap's opinion of flag-burning would make a better essay than story, though I do reserve the right to change my mind in the future. In the meantime...
Writers are routinely required to write characters who views differ from their own. I, for instance, really enjoy writing villains, despite the fact that I've never attempted so much as a misdemeanor. Writing a character as virtuous as Captain America is a real stretch for a regular fella with a mixed bag of failings and personality flaws like I have. Cap's value system is far more idealistic than mine could ever be. Cap has a reverence for life and a passion for freedom that I wish I could share, but I'm just not like that. But I still like to think I've been doing a creditable job these past five years thinking like Cap enough to bring his exploits to life, so...let's dispense with the pussyfootin' and address the issue at hand.
What it boils down to is this: which ranks higher in Cap's mind, the concept of freedom upon which our country was founded-- in this case, freedom of speech or self-expression-- or the tangible symbol of America itself? Freedom is an abstract thing, an idea. A flag is a material thing, with abstract connotations. For Cap, these connotations are all of America's greatest virtues, virtues which include freedom of speech. But Cap is savvy enough to know that not everyone shares his view of America's ideals. He would even grant others the freedom to let the American flag represent other things than those which it represents to Cap. And if the person disagrees with those things which the American flag represents to him or her, would Cap grant the person the freedom to publicly express that disagreement throught the public act of burning the flag?
Conditionally, I'd say yes. And the conditions I believe Cap would impose upon a would-be-flag-burner are these. First, that the flag-burning truly be a sincere, heart-felt act, not something done simply for shock effect or even worse, for no point at all. Second, that the physical act of setting a flag on fire be performed responsibly. When I was young and rambunctious, my father told me on numerous occasions that my freedom to swing my fists stopped one inch before another person's face. Sure, I had the right to wave my fists around as an act of self-expression, but the person next to me had the right to live without fear of being injurred by my self-expression. In the same light, Cap would prevent a person from burning a flag if that act posed any sort of danger to that person or the people around him. I'm not just talking about the guy who decides to burn a flag in a dynamite factory. I'm also talking about someone in a situation where a flag-burning will incite a riot (whether the riot is in agreement or opposition to the act would make no difference to Cap) or place that person in jeopardy. Self-expression that injures or even threatens injury Captain America would condemn and oppose.
Despite the symbolic nature of his own costume and mission, I believe Cap would rank people as more important than symbols, and what the symbol stand for as more important than the material symbol itself. I believe Cap would respect the individual's right to free speech (and by extension, symbolic protest) granted by the First Amendment to the Constitution. I believe Cap would agree with the statement attributed to Voltaire, 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.' I also believe Cap would stop a person about to torch a flag long enough to determine what it was the person meant by the symbolic desecration, but once satisfied that there was a point to it, would let him proceed. Afterward, I can see Cap talking to the flag-burner at great length about where that person felt America had let him down, and whether there was anything Cap could do to rectify the situation.
Is there any set of circumstances in which Cap himself would feel the need to burn the flag? Well, this is stretching it, but if someone were on fire, and the only possible way to save his life was by using the flag to snuff out the flames, I don't see Cap hesitating for an instant to save the life at the expense of the flag. On the other hand, Cap would probably not hesitate to rush into a burning building, risking hiw own life and limb, just to save an American flag inside. (He would never ask or expect anyone else to do the same, however.) The bottom line for Cap is that while people are more important than symbols, symbols serve people, providing them concrete images for abstract ideas. As such, symbols have value to him.
To sum it all up, Captain America, as I understand him, has a deep and abiding love for his country, the symbols of his country, and the ideals that those symbols stand for. But perhaps the foremost of those ideals is freedom, and Cap would not advocate abridging a person's freedom of speech or symbolic activity even if he found the content of that speech if he found the content of that speech or symbolic act personally repugnant. At least that's the way I see it.
-- Mark Gruenwald