In the past 6 years that I have worked in Federal contracting, there isn’t a more solemn and impressively distressing sight than seeing a flag lowered to half-staff. It marks death and a time for mourning the lives that have been lost. And in the past 6 years, both on military bases and in Washington, D.C., I have seen my share.
No one knows when the tradition actually started. Many reference the story of the dearly departed British captain of Heart’s Ease back in 1612 who died at sea. When the ship pulled into harbor it’s flag was lowered at half-staff, supposedly to make room for the invisible flag of death. Regardless, the tradition was born and has since spread worldwide. In the United States flags are lowered for different lengths of time depending on who the country is mourning:
According to Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 7 of the United States Code: The death of a current or former President lowers the flag for 30 days. For the current Vice President, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Speaker of the House the flag is lowered for 10 days.
Flags fly at half-staff from the day of death until the date of interment for Cabinet Secretaries, Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, former Vice Presidents, and the Governors. The death of a current member of Congress lowers the flag to half-staff on the day of death and following day.
The President can also issue an executive order to lower the flag to honor the death of other important figures and to mourn tragic events. This morning I entered the base to see once again our flag at half-staff; only raised days earlier to mark the end of our mourning period for the Paris attacks. I’ve lost count the number of times I have seen the flag at half-staff. Yesterday, following the San Bernardino shooting, social media and the news cam to a sobering realization that in 2015 there have already been 355 mass shootings in 336 days. That averages to more than one mass shooting a day – not even counting gun related deaths that are not characterized as such – and we still have a month to go until the year is out.
It’s particularly upsetting to think that just the day before the San Bernardino shooting President Obama was addressing the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado, reiterating what has become a familiar line of reasoning: mass shootings are the norm in America, but in every other developed country they happen much less frequently because of stricter, comprehensive gun laws.
“I say this every time we’ve got one of these mass shootings: This just doesn’t happen in other countries,” – President Obama, December 1, 2015
During these events people turn to faith and each other for support and for a way to understand why something like this has happened once again. Some point fingers towards the gun industry, others to Congress. The worst demonize an entire group or faith because of the actions of a few. But countrywide the majority offer words of encouragement, bravery, and prayer. They are good sentiments that are heartfelt. But that is all. Gun violence is an epidemic in this country. The fact that most of the US has returned to “business as usual” just a day following the massacre of 14 innocent people not only speaks to our own apathy but also to our feelings of helplessness. We have come to expect very little from our leaders on the Hill.
Prayers are great but they do nothing if action isn’t taken. Sadly I believe that I will continue to raise my eyes only half mast many more times before anything is ever actually done to address this problem of our own making.