I can’t say for certain what death or special event is more deserving of a half-masted flag than another. Someone somewhere will always feel left out because their person, group or community’s suffering was not recognized. That’s unfortunate. It’s a difficult decision for President Biden and Governor Reynolds to make. But it is possible to set clearer standards.
President George W. Bush expanded the use of half-mast orders in 2004 by issuing one of them for an Indonesian tsunami, with a total of 58 during his tenure. Not to be outdone, his successor decreed 72 such proclamations. No statistics were available on the Trump Presidency, but given his love of winning it would not be surprising if his number was 73.
In 2018 then President Trump, in accordance with federal flag protocol, ordered flags to be flown at half-mast for the entire month of December to mourn the passing of former President George H.W. Bush. That’s too long. Bush was a decent man and a WWII combat pilot worthy of mourning, but he was not royalty.
Biden and Reynolds issued a four-day half-mast order in March to mourn shootings at spas in Atlanta. Biden issued another half-mast order this week from May 26-30 to honor the victims of a workplace shooting in San Jose last Wednesday. More appropriately, the flag will stay lowered on Monday for Memorial Day.
Tearing a piece of one’s clothing, or the black ribbon worn on that clothing, is customary Jewish mourning practice following the death of a close family member. Garments were much more expensive and difficult to repair 3,800 years ago when the tearing was first done by Jacob, the namesake of Israel. Part of the reason it’s still significant is that it’s done so sparingly. If Jews did that for every single person in their country who suffers a tragic end, they would have empty bank accounts and drawers full of unwearable clothing.
By the same token, Gov. Reynolds should reconsider lowering flags to mourn every tragedy across the country that makes national news, with rare exceptions for debilitating crises such as 9-11. A good place to start would be narrowing half-mast orders for fallen police officers to the specific county or city in which they served. Similar standards could be applied to mass shootings.
Symbolic gestures lose currency when they’re deployed too frequently. Lowering the flag three or four days a week would (sometimes already does) ultimately have the same impact as zero days. Eventually people stop paying attention. Many of those people are business owners and private citizens proudly flying Old Glory on their flag poles but no longer adjusting them.
It’s getting to the point that soon Americans may start thinking a fully staffed flag signifies something out of the ordinary. It’s rather depressing. Every time I see a flag at half staff I think, “Where was the shooting this time?” or “Who are the dead cops of the week?” That’s not to diminish the importance of offering our sympathies to those suffering hardships in other parts of the country, but there are other ways to do that.
I’m a fierce advocate for law enforcement and our military. I’m extremely grateful for the sacrifices they make to serve and protect us. That’s why I want to see the ropes positioning the American flags they serve under utilized in a more thoughtful manner.