The flags at the apartment complexes nearest my house are flying at half mast yet again. First let me say that I think flag flying (not to mention half-masting) by businesses is a little cynical. The only individual I ever knew who flew the flag regularly was my grandfather, and as a veteran he was certainly entitled. In fact, that was the context in which he flew it–service-backed patriotism–right down to demonstrating to me the proper disposal of a worn American flag by burning it on the old Weber (an act, which while being correct flag etiquette, has been in danger of being made unconstitutional in more recent times). The nearest apartment complex flies not only the American flag, but the Texas flag and a corporate flag (in fact, from one vantage point at a stop sign, I can see at least five flags in two complexes). Since no flag can be flown higher than the American flag (though it sometimes happens in Texas, presumably out of latent resentment regarding the fall of the Republic), this means all the flags fly at half staff–an unavoidable overkill which just makes the whole thing seem even more pandering and cynical. And since city ordinances govern the maximum height of a flagpole but apparently not their spacing nor the size of the flags flown, the overall effect is just tacky.
It was only a couple of months ago that they raised all these flags back up after a month of mourning for Gerald Ford. At the time, a month of mourning struck me as overlong. All those flags, for all that time, it loses its impact. For a former President, I can see flying them until the inevitable “national day of mourning,” or until the person is actually laid to rest (this is, in fact, the rule for former Vice Presidents), but anything more than a week is just ridiculous. No one outside his family was actually mourning Gerald Ford’s death for a whole month. Around about week three I’d look at those flags and think “shit, did someone else die?” before remembering that we were still mourning a guy who stopped being a public figure when I was in grade school (meaning anyone under the age of 30 would have no emotional context for the man).
Now I have to wonder how long we’ll be at half mast for the Virginia Tech victims. I understand that U.S. universities are international institutions. I understand that school shootings are a hot-button topic for us. And I imagine if you heard about this tragedy you’ve put some thought into its causes and implications. Seeing the flags at half staff the next day is certainly not going to come as a surprise. But what about tomorrow? The next day? Friday? How much is a enough? A week? Ten days? That’s a week from Friday. That doesn’t sound completely unreasonable.
But let’s put this in perspective. Events that kill 33 Americans:
In the U.S., drunken drivers kill more people per day than this.
Okay, okay, that’s all statistics. We’re talking about national tradgedies, not the background noise of 21st-century life, things worth moving the flag for. If school shootings and the death of Presidents fall into this category, then what about war? Guess how long the Iraq war takes to kill 33 American soldiers at current rates? 10 days.
So here’s the real question: why do we ever put the flag back up? The answer, of course, is in the symbolism. Even when the flag is flown at half staff, the procedure for flying it requires it to be raised to full height immediately before and after. The reason for this is so that we recognize half staff as an exception, not the rule. The occasion for it should be rare enough that it still gives us pause while reminding us that grief, especially on a national level, is a necessarily temporary condition. The height of the flag is not meant to be a national emotional barometer, but a gesture of respect. So Virginia can keep their flag down as long as they want, but ours better be back up before the end of the week.