We should be mad about the national anthem protest

Published 9:02 am Sunday, October 22, 2017

He was my fourth visitor since I joined the Austin Daily Herald. He was angry. He told me so  — many times.

We sat down in an interview space just off the newsroom. It has three living room-type chairs. We sat facing each other with a footstool between us.

He was a veteran from Austin, and he was absolutely ticked off about NFL players protesting by kneeling during the national anthem before games. It was an insult to him and all veterans who fought for this country and died for this country.  He was never going to watch an NFL game again, he said.

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A lot of veterans are just as angry, he continued, and you the media have been making these players out to be heroes. The media needs to tell our side of the story — the disrespected veterans.

Yes, I felt a bit defensive. It went away, though, because we’re in the same boat, just like everyone else. We have  been bombarded by the message that we should be angry. From the White House to my 28-year old car radio, those messages pound at us loud and clear.

I am not a veteran, so I won’t pretend to know how this makes a veteran feel. I try to understand, and I believe he feels insulted, and others do as well.

I’m frustrated, too, but it’s different, I told my visitor.

I’m trying to remember when the flag started meaning something to me. I think it was when I learned about our amazing space program. I was a child with dreams of going to space and excited to be in the United States, a country that did the impossible. The flag was on the rockets.

Later, when I was a Cub Scout, I was drilled on flag ettiquete, flag history and flag meaning. They could tell me all day it was meaningful, but it was a Navy vet, who served in wartime, that made it so. He told us his story, only once, and it included stepping into a burned corpse of a crew mate. He was literally in hell for the U.S. and now he was teaching us to tie square knots and hammer nails using the end of the hammer  —“Let the tool do the work.”

My best friend’s father, who lived across the street, served and he had some issues. He never talked about it. He went quiet when such  topics came up. This guy was a big man with sharp humor and a huge laugh. The kind of guy you want to hang around. He flew the flag in our suburban neighborhood on a flagpole in his front yard. The rest of us put our flags in holders next to the front doors.

Every passing year, the flag had more meaning, partially because of those men and others. I also kept learning more about the great things our country does, it’s heroic place in the world. We were a place where we put faith in the goodness of each other. We were the builders, the ones that came to the rescue, the ones that you could count on when facing the worst.

That is some of what was behind my red eyes on the football sidelines.  As a high school and then a college football player lined up for the tinny tape of a brass band playing the national anthem I never really sang along.  I was always a little too choked up.

By that time, I was also driven to be a reporter, To shine the light on the wrong to make it right. My favorite cliché about reporting  was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That call to journalism seemed so America. The First Amendment endorses and encourages what became my life’s work. I know very well that journalism in some other countries can be a cause of death. The flag is our shield.

So here comes this controversy about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to bring attention to racial injustice. The vitriol pouring their way is incredible. Demagogues, for their own purposes, use the drama to whip up anger. I don’t think this surprised any of the players. They had to know people would get mad, which is the point. This maddening act spawns anger that an ongoing American tragedy has not.

I’m not calling the players heroes. I’m waiting for heroes to emerge, for anger to turn to action.

The kneeling players know the killing of innocent people is so much worse than their country hating them. It’s worth trying to understand. Push past the anger and see the cry for help and  do what Americans are supposed to do: Come to the rescue. Save our world.  Live up to our flag.

Christopher Baldus can be reached at chris.baldus@austindailyherald.com