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Opinion: The American Flag Flies For Democracy, Not Against It

U.S. flags, representing those who could not attend the inauguration due to COVID-19, flutter in the wind at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20.
Roberto Schmidt
AFP via Getty Images
U.S. flags, representing those who could not attend the inauguration due to COVID-19, flutter in the wind at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20.

The morning of Jan. 6, my wife and I saw people filling the streets of Washington, D.C., waving American flags as they walked toward the National Mall to protest the outcome of a free and fair election.

This week, when we saw security videos shown at Donald Trump's impeachment trial, we realized many rioters used the same sticks and poles, on which they waved those flags, to smash their way in to the U.S. Capitol, and beat officers who guarded its chambers.

Those stars and stripes are the same flag New York City firefighters raised over the rubble at Ground Zero, and that astronauts unfurled on the soil of the moon. It is the same flag seen just across the river from the U.S. Capitol, in the sculpture of the Iwo Jima memorial, that immortalizes the U.S. Marines who advanced through gunfire up Mount Suribachi in 1945, and raised the flag to inspire Marines to keep going.

It is the flag that rallied Union troops at Gettysburg, in the battle that turned the tide of the Civil War. It is the flag flown by U.S. soldiers who liberated the inmates of Buchenwald, Dachau, and other Nazi death camps in 1945, and the flag that ripples over more than 9,000 graves at the U.S. military cemetery in Normandy, where so many Americans died fighting tyranny.

It is the U.S. flag that stood in the entrance to Jane Addams' Hull House settlement in Chicago, that welcomed people who arrived in the city, often poor, hungry, and rejected, from all over the world.

It is the flag on the cover of Bruce Springsteen's album Born in the USA, in which he sings of the country he hopes will live up to its noblest ambitions. "I wanna sleep beneath peaceful skies in my lover's bed/With a wide open country in my eyes/And these romantic dreams in my head."

That U.S. flag that was carried across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965, by marchers who called on their country to fulfill its pledge of equality. John Lewis, a leader of that march, was beaten nearly to death that day by Alabama state troopers. And the U.S. flag draped his casket when Congressman John Lewis died last year, and he lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol: the very building rioters attacked on Jan. 6.

As we saw this week, rioters used the poles on which they waved American flags as clubs to try to beat down American democracy, and the public servants sworn to defend it.

Their attacks shook America.

But even before the broken glass had been swept up and blood on the floor had dried, democracy went on.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.