The United States is embroiled in a passionate debate over National Football League players who “took a knee” during the playing of the national anthem last weekend.
In a show of solidarity and to protest racial injustice, teams across the U.S. silently knelt, locked arms or chose to be absent from the field until the conclusion of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Some players stood with a clenched fist in the air, reminiscent of the 1968 Olympics “Black Power Salute” by U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
Make no mistake, the players, team staff and owners knew their actions would be controversial. They knew their symbolic actions during the playing of the anthem and the display of the U.S. flag would throw fuel on an already blazing discussion about due reverence for these national symbols.
What is it about a rectangular cloth, or a few bars of a song that can fuel such patriotism, or outrage? Why is it that “taking a knee” is such a powerful statement of commitment or, as many Americans see it, betrayal?
The simple answer is a flag is not just a cloth, and an anthem is not just a song. They are symbols that have been imbued with ideals, values and traditions that comprise the abstract “cultural identity” binding together the individuals that make up a nation – “federated along one keel,” to employ the words of Herman Melville in his great American novel Moby-Dick.
For many military veterans who fought for those symbols and all they represent, risking their lives, perhaps suffering injury or knowing comrades who died performing their duties, any perceived disrespect of the flag or anthem can be interpreted as an intensely personal affront to them, their brothers-in-arms or the country they served, no matter what ideological explanation is given.
Generally speaking, societies share the following problem: There is not much they can bestow upon war veterans and “great people who have done great things” except for shows of respect (for example, standing during the national anthem) and honors such as ribbons and medals. It is, of course, far too little payment for their sacrifice, but there are scant other ways for countries to demonstrate their gratitude and appreciation for heroic deeds.
Which is why the recent theft of medals and other valuables belonging to 98-year-old Athelstan Charles Ethelwulf Long (the last Administrator and first Governor of the Cayman Islands) has inspired disgust and anger throughout our community. We and many others are calling not only for the immediate return of Mr. Long’s treasures, but also for the swift arrest, efficient prosecution and strong sentencing of the criminals responsible for this repulsive and deliberate deed.
Mr. Long is one of those “great men” we mentioned earlier. He fought for Great Britain in World War II, endured the horrors of imprisonment by the Japanese in the Pacific theater and, after the war, devoted the remainder of his professional life to service of Queen and country. When he chose to settle in Cayman after his retirement, he honored our community.
That honor was trampled upon by the thieves who broke into an office in the dead of night and spent two hours prying open a concrete-lined safe in order to steal medals, commemorative coins and jewelry.
To them, the medals represented “metal” to be exchanged for a baser form of metal: money.
To the decent members of our community, Mr. Long’s medals represent his courage, commitment and dedication – characteristics and values that are impervious to thievery and immortal in the memory of our society, which has the highest respect for Mr. Long and the others who built Cayman, and the world, into what it is today.