What’s in a flag?

People line up to enter the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina

People line up to enter the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina

Historically a flag was used by the military to aid communication, to illustrate to commanders which lot of troops were which.

Flags have evolved, but essentially they still act as a rallying point for communities – be they the fans of a football club, or the citizens of a nation.

Yet each community takes different things from a flag, and some flags have, for very good reasons, fallen into disuse.

For instance the flag of South Africa was changed when the Rainbow Nation was born; the old flag was tarred with the stain of apartheid and no longer reflected the Republic of South Africa. Instead it came to reflect the previous oppressive and racist regime.

Equally the flag of the Soviet Union has all but disappeared, though some of the Ukrainian rebels have significantly been flying it again. Given the slaughter of the Polish officer corps, the invasion of Poland, the invasion of Finland, the oppression of half the world, it is hardly surprising most in the old Soviet bloc want to forget that flag.

There is a huge row going on right now in the Southern United States of America, and it’s about a flag.

The flag in question is that of the Confederacy of States of America. It is known as “The Stainless Banner” and it is actually the second flag the CSA had. It was replaced in March 1865 with “the Bloodstained Banner” yet it has historically represented the Southern States and many in the South use it as part of their heritage. For convenience I shall refer to it as the Confederate flag from now on.

Yet to the African American community in those Southern States, this particular flag represents their ancestors’ oppression; those who were dragged from Africa in chains, whose descendants remained in chains for centuries in the early life of the great experiment in “Freedom”. George Washington had slaves, but by the time of Republican President Abraham Lincoln, slavery was no longer considered acceptable in the north (or in most of the rest of the world – it had been outlawed here several decades earlier).

The South might believe that the American Civil War was about State’s rights and about jealous factory owners wanting the riches of the cotton barons, but for the world – and especially the African American community – the Civil War was about Slavery. And the South lost.

For those in the African American community the Confederate flag represents a time when they were not free – when they were literally considered property rather than human beings. Displaying it is immensely offensive to a huge minority of the population of the United States of America.

Yet the flag was reintroduced to the state flag of the State of Georgia in 1956, two years after racially segregated schools were declared illegal by the US Supreme Court. It was removed from that flag in 2001, but it remains on the state flag of the State of Mississippi.

The Confederate flag is being struck from any number of flag poles as we speak. Republican Presidential candidates have spoken against it, including Jeb Bush and Lindsay Graham. Mitt Romney has said it should be consigned to history.

It is right that this debate is happening. Indeed, it is far too late that this debate is happening. But it is happening for all the wrong reasons.

The flag debate is a deliberate distraction from what must happen eventually, even in the United States. It is happening because last week a white racist walked into a church, a place of worship, and slaughtered nine innocent souls simply because they were black.

In photographs he is pictured wearing a coat with the apartheid flag of South Africa and the flag of Independent Rhodesia. He is photographed with a car whose license plate displays the logo of the Sons of the Confederacy, essentially the Confederate flag. These symbols of hatred are evidence that he was a racist; that his motivation was hate and his brain was poisoned. They are not the cause of the deaths in Charleston.

Sadly the massacre in Charleston is no longer an unusual occurrence in the modern United States of America. Sure, the motive this time was racism, but mass killings using firearms are, as President Obama pointed out, almost uniquely an American phenomenon.

The reason we’re having a debate about flags is because American’s refuse, again and again, to accept the evidence in front of their eyes and properly regulate the possession of firearms and ammunition.

You would have thought that, after the massacre of 20 school children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the US Government would have introduced legislation that limited access to firearms. But no. Americans still have more guns per 100 people than any other ‘peaceful’ nation on earth. 88.8 guns per 100 population. Is it any surprise that with 3.2 deaths from firearms per 100,000 population, the US has substantially more killings by firearms than any other nation?

The argument about the flag, though necessary (or actually, unnecessary) is a mere distraction from the real argument. It is time – beyond time – that Americans recognised that their love affair with guns is literally killing their children.