Life overflows with things to worry about. My own list includes ISIS, terrorism in general, and the prevalence of violent crime. I wonder what the future holds for my children and grandchildren in a rapidly changing and threatening world. I know that death will eventually take me, and I think about the many ways I might die, few of them tempting, such as wreck, stroke, heart attack, complications of dementia. Or being shot by some nut case when I stop by the mall for a quick purchase, or by a fast food joint for a sandwich. No need to continue, but take my word for it, I have a very long list.
Far down the list, out of sight, possibly all the way at the very end, is the decision of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to refuse to stand for the playing of the national anthem at a pre-season 49ers-Packers game. Don’t get me wrong – such a disrespectful gesture toward our country and all the sacrifices that have secured its blessings for so many disgusts me. While a large serving of its blessings have obviously fallen on Kaepernick, I don’t doubt that he has felt the sting of racism along the way, and in some ways that sting may considerably outweigh the blessings of unusual athletic ability and unusually high income.
While I can sympathize with any victim of discrimination, I have no legitimate standing to evaluate its effect on a person of color, for I, by an accident of birth, landed in the group that can never personally experience that exact form of discrimination. I can wonder, however, if this particular way of protesting is likely to have the desired effect. So racial discrimination still persists, and an athlete publicly, on national television, insults his country in order to bring this fact to the attention of whom? Do we have some folks who will be shocked at this news, who were unaware until now that racism exists? And will this shock somehow serve to mitigate the problem? Or will the act itself turn off some people who were previously somewhat sympathetic to the athlete’s cause?
But enough speculation. Let’s get down to brass tacks. Standing for the playing of the national anthem, like saying “Excuse me” when you accidentally bump someone, is the right thing to do, but there’s no law requiring it. We are, after all, “the land of the free.” Not to mention, the land of outrage, the land of indignation, and the land of cries for vengeance when someone does something that we personally find very annoying.
We tend to go through the same spasms of rage and indignation when someone burns a flag or refuses to stand and participate in the pledge of allegiance to it. Now, I personally detest the burning of my flag, and I have been faithfully pledging allegiance to it for three-quarters of a century, even though I have sometimes wondered why I have to keep publicly assuring the world that I am a loyal citizen. Anyway, it seems to me that the only thing we accomplish by outcries and denunciation of the offender is encouragement of copy-cats to repeat the offense. In the past, flag burnings have caused an uproar, then there has been a small rash of similar burnings, and then our attention goes to some other matter and flag burnings fade away.
While I know that racism exists and believe we should work to eliminate it, I think that the best reaction to Kaepernick’s annoying method of highlighting it is to give it the least attention possible. As for me, I’ve already given it more than enough, so I will now return to worrying about matters nearer the top of my list.
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.”