The flag at half-staff

I was wrong about two things when I first began writing this post about flying the flag at half-staff (half-mast in the (British) Commonwealth of Nations or on an American ship). Fortunately, I have a tendency to fact-check my own writing before sharing it with the public.

I thought that I had been taught in school that the flag at half-staff was not literally half-way between the top and bottom of the flagpole, but only lowered a bit from the top. Perhaps things have changed since then; otherwise, I was taught wrong, or I am misremembering what I was taught. Nearly every description of “flying the flag at half-staff” that I can find today indeed does define “half-staff” as literally half-way between the top and bottom of the flagpole. The exception to that description was a dictionary definition of “half-staff” and not an official or semiofficial publication on flag etiquette. Obviously, common sense would direct that the flag not be flown literally at that half-way point if that causes the flag or others below it on the flagpole to touch the ground or become entangled in trees or other obstructions.

I did correctly remember that, when a flag is to be flown at half-staff, it should first be raised in the morning to the top of the flagpole and then lowered; likewise, at the end of the day, the flag should be raised to the top of the flagpole before being lowered and removed. I also correctly remembered that the President of the United States declares when the flag should be flown at half-staff. Aside from annual observances such as Memorial Day, the flag generally is flown at half-staff at the death of a public servant, such as a former President, a Supreme Court judge, a member of Congress, and the like. The flag also might fly at half-staff to honor military personnel who have died in the line of duty. Governors may order the U.S. and state flags to fly at half-staff at the death of a state government official or former governor. No mayor may order the flag to be flown at half-staff except for the governor of Washington D.C.

For the last several years I have thought that some individuals and businesses were choosing to lower the flag to observe other tragedies, such as school shootings, the shooting in a movie theater, and the bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon. To me, it seemed inappropriate to treat those deaths as equal to the death of a public official or of military personnel. By no means do I think that those were not tragic events—each of them was horrible, and each of them deserved a public sense of sadness and mourning. I merely objected to using the flag as a symbol of those tragic deaths, since the victims were not placing their lives into the service of the United States of America. Likewise, it seemed inappropriate to fly the flag at half-staff after the shootings in Paris last year. Again, that event was a horrible tragedy, but few of the victims were citizens of the United States and none of them were public officials.

I still feel the same way about those observances, but I was wrong to assume that individuals and businesses were making that decision. Each of those times the flag flew at half-staff, it was by proclamation of the President of the United States. I cannot say whether or not any political agenda led the President to make those proclamations. I do fear, though, that as hatred and senseless violence increase, we may arrive at a time when we are in constant mourning. In the near future, we might never see the flag flying at the top of the flagpole again. J.


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