Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs How did you feel when you learned that five American flags were recently stolen, desecrated or tampered with in Oak Creek?
How did you feel when you learned that one of those flags was stolen from the family of Kane Johnson, who just left to serve his country in Iraq?
How did you feel when you learned that another of the flags was stolen from the Oak Creek Fire Department and hung upside-down outside Town Hall with the words "Scream For Salvation" painted on it?
I suspect you felt as I did.
Angry and hurt.
Did you feel the same anger when you learned an American soldier in Iraq recently wrote graffiti inside a Quran?
Did you feel the same anger when you learned the soldier used the Quran for target practice?
Did you feel the same anger when you learned the soldier left the bullet-torn Quran where Iraqis were sure to find it?
I suspect you didn't.
Neither did I.
Perhaps we should have.
Most of us would like to see the Oak Creek flag vandal apprehended and punished because we consider his or her (or their) behavior reprehensible, but we probably didn't give much thought to punishing the American soldier. Yet, reaction around the world to the deliberate act of that soldier has not been as tame as here at home.
On Thursday, during a protest in Afghanistan against the shooting of the Quran, a NATO soldier and two civilians were killed and dozens were injured when the protest by more than 1,000 turned violent. The fierce demonstration occurred in spite of President Bush and top military commanders in Iraq having repeatedly apologized for the Quran incident and promising to prosecute the soldier.
As part of one apology in Iraq, according to The Associated Press, Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond told Iraqi tribal leaders during a ceremony to present them with a new Quran. "I come before you here seeking your forgiveness. In the most humble manner, I look in your eyes today and I say please forgive me and my soldiers.
"The actions of one soldier were nothing more than criminal behavior," he added. "I've come to this land to protect you, to support you - not to harm you - and the behavior of this soldier was nothing short of wrong and unacceptable."
The unidentified American soldier, who has been removed from Iraq, also has written a letter of apology to the Iraqis. Unfortunately, the apologies have not calmed some of the Islamic faith, and more violent protests like the one in Afghanistan may follow as word spreads throughout the Muslim world. Additionally, the government of Iraq is demanding the soldier be turned over to them for prosecution.
When I learned of the senseless act in Iraq - just days after learning of the equally senseless act in Oak Creek - I found myself questioning why I'm more offended by the desecration of an American flag here at home than of a Quran in Iraq?
The answer is easy, if somewhat simplistic. I'm more offended because the flag is a symbol of the country I cherish. A symbol my father fought under during World War II. A symbol that covered his casket when he was buried in 1975. The Quran is a book with little meaning or symbolism to me.
Still, the American flag and Quran are just symbols and representations. And while they both represent powerful and meaningful beliefs that many have given their lives in defense of, no one should be harmed or killed due to the defilement of a symbol.
Fortunately, we live in a country where we don't sanction physical harm or death for those who sully our national symbols. Indeed, in certain circumstances we constitutionally protect the right of those who desecrate the flag to make a political statement because we value freedom above symbols. Thankfully, that sets us apart from a significant portion of the world.
I have three hopes as we enter Memorial Day weekend.
I hope that - just as the American soldier who shot the Quran stepped forward to accept responsibility and apologize to the people of Iraq - the vandal who stole and desecrated the flags will step forward to accept responsibility and apologize to the people of Oak Creek.
I hope that as a country we remember that freedom is always worth dying for, but symbols like books and flags are never worth killing over.
Finally, and most important, I hope we all take time to remember those Americans who gave their lives to defend our freedom.