Flying at Half Mast

“Why is the flag at half-mast?”, he asked. My teenage son and I were driving to the store to pick up a tuner and some new guitar strings when he looked along the road and noticed a flag only half way up the pole. My immediate reaction was a touch of pique as I could not recall why the flag would once again be flying at half-mast. This all too common sight has left the impression that we live in a world where the flag will never again fly at the top of the flag pole.

Admitting my ignorance first to myself and then to my son, I confessed that I did not know why the flag was proclaiming some recent horror to all passersby. Considering myself informed I should have had the answer, but I find myself growing numb to the tide of death that continues to roll in. My son’s question generated more questions for me to ponder. The first was what was the origin of flying flags at “half mast”, and the second was searching for an explanation of how we reached a state where seeing a flag at half-mast seemed its natural position.

The term “flying at half mast” suggests a nautical origin to the term. Poles and staffs are a part of the terrestrial world, but masts belong to the sea. My investigation suggested that the origin of flying flags at half-mast dates back to the mid 17th century aboard British naval vessels. (1) A ship flying its colors at half mast was a sign indicating mourning. Digging deeper revealed that the origin of flying a flag at half-mast, rather than at the top of the mast, implies that aboard the ship all is not “ship shape”. That the captain and crew care little for the careless or slovenly appearance of their ship that flying the colors at half-mast implies.

A slovenly appearance as an indication of mourning has precedents that go back to the Bible where it is written that those suffering profound grief would tear at their clothes or paint themselves in ashes. In Genesis it is written (Genesis 37:29) “And Reuben returned uno the pit; and, behold Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes “ and (Genesis 37:34) “And Jacob rent his garments, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days”. (2) Therefore, flying a flag at half-mast (or half-staff) as a marker of grief and mourning is a tradition that has both naval and biblical precedents, but what are the customs that guide our current practice?

Current practice in the United States of flying a flag at half-mast (or staff) is governed by the United States Code (USC) Title 36, Chapter 10 – Flag Code:
…By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory. In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, …. (3)

Simple observation suggests that the frequency with which the flag is being flown at half-mast violates US Code Title 36, Chapter 10. We are flying the flag at half-mast, not only on Presidential order, but rather for the increasingly common occurrence of mass killings in our schools, places of work and worship, and entertainment events. The October 1st killings of concert goers at the Route 91 Festival in Las Vegas resulted in 58 dead, 851 injured, and marks the largest mass shooting in US History, and the more recent shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh highlights the hatred and disrespect for life that is rampant in this country.

The US Homicide rate peaked in the mid-1980s’ at roughly 9 homicides per 100K people and since 2000 has held fairly steady at between 4 and 6 homicides per 100K. Despite the relative stability in the homicide rate for the last two decades the Washington Post reports that hate crimes have increased for the fourth straight year in a row. (4) Additionally, in probably the best dataset on mass killings in the US Mother Jones reports a marked increase in deaths due to mass shootings beginning in 2003 with 2017 being the worst year on record. In an era when mundane homicides are stable a marked increase in hate crimes and mass killings suggests a shift toward intolerance and diminishing respect for human life. (5) Yet accompanying the absence of action to address this crisis non-rational rhetoric dominates our national response.

An example of the lunacy of the current debate is the suggestion that increasing gun ownership is a solution to gun violence. This suggestion possesses the same logic of knocking an extra hole in the bottom of a sinking boat to allow the water to escape. Sadly when faced with such an argument there is no effective response and the absurdity of the proposition is often coupled with the unreasoning zeal of those that make it.
Absurdity breeds absurdity and the suggestion of increasing gun ownership has been coupled with a discussion of hardening schools and churches. This concept has taken on a seriousness with which was formerly reserved for talking about the need for hardening embassies. In a country where overcrowded classrooms are the norm the idea of spending already inadequate education dollars on armed security and training our teachers to shoot is inane. Though I imagine that a preacher has a pretty clear field of fire from the pulpit.

The increase in mass killings has been accompanied by an increase in hostile rhetoric, much of it emanating from the Oval Office. Hostile rhetoric and a lack of civility from our country’s leaders has normalized the hate of many and the horrific actions of a few. When such rhetoric comes from our nation’s leaders it normalizes the thoughts, words and actions of those that commit these heinous crimes as it glorifies their actions and puts the imprimatur of respectability on incidents that should never happen.

More concerning than the unprecedented rhetoric emanating from the Oval Office is the absence of substantive action from those that claim to support change. Ignorance and hatred have always existed and will continue exist until the end of days. Sadly it is not the ignorance and hate of a few that that will drive this nation into chaos, but rather “The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing”. A quote that has an unclear attribution, but unquestionably timely and true.

Flying a flag at half mast as a sign of mourning is a tradition with 400 years of history, and precedents that stretch back to antiquity. A tradition that is a silent and dignified symbol of grief and loss. Flying a flag at half mast to recognize the victims of the mass killings seems a small violation of the Flag Code, and its omnipresent state should be viewed as a protest against the inaction of our nation’s leaders. I look forward to a day when the flag of this great country will once again fly at the top of the flagpole, and if perchance I see it flying at half-mast I won’t have to search my memory for why.

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Dr. Robert Pretzlaff is an experienced public speaker and lecturer at the national, regional and local level. Have Robert speak at your next event.
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