So as the country pauses to commemorate Flag Day today, many may be asking, why?
It may be because Americans' intimate relationship with their flag is something that wouldn't fly in a lot of other countries.
“We can incorporate our flag into our clothing, bring it onstage during a rock concert. The First Amendment actually gives us the freedom to burn it,” said John Ketterer, director of the International House student exchange program at Jacksonville State University. “In Mexico, that would get you 10 years in prison.”
Ketterer spent six years in Mexico serving as the director of the American School in Torreon where, he said, the flagpole in front of the schoolhouse stood bare.
“In Mexico, the flag is protected by law,” he explained. “It is not for people’s frivolous use. Disrespect is strongly sanctioned.”
One of Ketterer's students learned this lesson after making the mistake of incorporating the Mexican flag into his school talent show performance. Ketterer said a military officer saw the performance and brought charges against the school-age child, which Ketterer had to plead with the officer to drop.
In Europe, national symbols are not as regulated, but Ketterer said the culture is not one of patriotic flag flying. He said European countries' flags are seen on state buildings but rarely on personal property.
"But you do see them at soccer games," he added as proof that restrictions are not as tight.
Paul McCartney, professor of political science at Towson University in Maryland and a leading expert on American nationalism, said in an emailed response that flags serve as a symbol for the creed of a nation.
“The United States and its flag stand for values, like individual liberty, that can have meaning for anyone, anywhere,” he said. "In a way that other nations and national symbols cannot."
According to McCartney, the distinction is that America's nationalism is not based on language, race or religion.
“If one wanted to become an American and was willing to uphold the principles at the heart of our founding documents, then one could become an American,” McCartney said. “That’s the message of the Statue of Liberty.”
The celebration of Flag Day began in the U.S. in 1885.
John Janik, president of the National Flag Day Foundation in Waubeka, Wis., said that Flag Day commemorates June 14, 1777, the day the Continental Congress declared that the infant country’s flag would consist of white stars on a field of blue framed by alternating red and white stripes.
“A schoolteacher by the name of Bernard Cigrand placed an American flag in an inkwell on his desk and asked his students to write an essay entitled ‘What the Flag Means to Me,’” he said.
According to Janik, Cigrand went on to become a world-famous educator and author dedicated to instilling in his fellow Americans a hallowed respect for their country’s flag. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson declared June 14 to be Flag Day. Congress made it official in 1949 and on June 14, 2004, Congress declared Waubeka to be the birthplace of Flag Day.
Flags can be seen waving from picket fences to soccer fields, slapped on car bumpers, draped across fallen soldiers’ caskets and pinned to the lapels of Commanders-in-Chief. And while disrespect may not be strongly sanctioned, it is strongly discouraged by those who’ve embraced Cigrand’s message.
When Tim Beebe, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post 924 in Anniston, sees a worn U.S. flag flying, he said he takes it upon himself to let the resident or business know it needs to be replaced.
“Most vets will usually stop in and do that,” he said. “I know I do.”
Incoming state commander of the American Legion, Jeff McNair said the post in Oxford often receives calls about flags that need to be replaced.
“If they can’t replace it themselves we’ll stop in and replace it for them,” he said. “Often times, we donate one for them.”
Ken Rollins, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 502, recalled that recently deceased Vietnam vet, Howard Norton,was known to remove worn-out flags himself if the owner wouldn’t oblige.
Rollins described a flag in unacceptable condition as frayed, torn, faded or worn out.
“If the ends are tattered at all we ask they be taken down,” he said.
In honor of Flag Day, the VFW in Anniston will hold a ceremony to properly dispose of retired American flags on Saturday at 12 p.m. at post 924 on Highway 431 according to Beebe. He added that the Anniston High School JROTC and local Boy Scouts will assist in the ceremony and the fire department will be on hand to keep the blaze under control.
The organization will dispose of any flags that are no longer in condition to be displayed.
“People can turn them in to the VFW post,” Beebe said. “We’ll take care of them.”
Rollins said the VVA cancelled its flag burning scheduled for Saturday due to the no-burn order in place across the state, but it may be rescheduled for Veterans Day.
In the little Wisconsin town that started it all, Janik said more than 7000 people swarmed the streets of Waubeka on Sunday for the 65th annual Flag Day celebration. The festivities included a parade, fireworks, an essay competition reminiscent of Cigrand’s legendary assignment and skydivers holding an American flag that was flown in Iraq.
“The ceremony ends with a salute to the armed forces and a love song,” Janik said. “‘God Bless America.’”