Sometimes people make me extremely angry. They do things that I’ve known all my life to be wrong. They violate traditions that are sacred to me and to most people I know. This was what happened when I first saw Colin Kaepernick kneel instead of standing when the national anthem was played.
I’ve always stood for the national anthem. I always will, as long as I’m able. I think the anthem, although difficult to sing, especially with a lump in your throat, is inspiring. Just as I think the flag, even when something gets in your eye and dims your vision, is the most beautiful national flag in the world. I found Kaepernick’s gesture, in the first moment, to be annoying.
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Being addicted to the idea of freedom, even when it makes me uncomfortable, caused me to revise my thinking. I could understand the serious matter the young man was trying to force onto the nation’s consciousness, a very real threat to him and to others of my fellow citizens, a threat that is not blocked by personal wealth. I could sympathize or not, agree or not, but I realized I had no right to demand that he act in a way that pleased me and kept me from getting angry.
In fact, I was surprised to realize that I have no protection at all against being annoyed. Nor do I have the right to agree technically that he has freedom to protest, but then demand that his protest take the form I choose for him. Nor does he have to go back to his neighborhood of origin and help his former neighbors, as some have demanded; he may do so or not. That’s freedom.
Some have said that these professional athletes should be grateful that they’ve been allowed to become rich, as if somehow the rest of us have generously and unselfishly made this special dispensation for them. No, sorry. They can be grateful or not. Free country, remember? They were born with a high degree of physical ability, honed it, and found somebody willing to pay them obscene amounts of money to apply it for the entertainment of the rest of us. Not my business and not my right to demand that they be grateful.
And I don’t think we’re on very firm ground when we insist that the owners should not allow them to protest publicly before the game starts, because the players are at work, and you know they’re not supposed to take work time to protest. This seems a little like my neighbor telling me what my rules for my children should be in my own home.
A great many people have articulated what they insist is the primary basis for our need to battle these peaceful protests: Kneeling instead of standing is showing disrespect to our veterans. Now, I served two years as a member of the U.S. Army Reserve, followed by 28 years and three months on active duty in the Regular Army. I believe that makes me a veteran, although that status in no way dominates my life. And it gives me no more claim to the flag than anybody else. If you don’t want to honor the flag in the traditional way, that’s between you and the flag. And maybe your boss. But I have no control over you, and neither the flag nor the national anthem needs my protection in this matter. They will be inspiring citizens, both here and abroad, long after you and I are gone.
So please stop using me as an excuse to restrict the freedom of others to peacefully demonstrate in order to forcefully point out a wrong that seriously affects their lives. You don’t speak for me. I didn’t serve in order to protect your right to force others to do things in a manner that won’t offend you. Now, I can’t make you stop using me as an excuse, but if you continue, I reserve the right to be really angry.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.” He wrote this for the Ledger-Enquirer.