Wisconsin has spent a lot of time in mourning this year, judging by how often the flag has flown at half staff. Gov. Scott Walker and President Donald Trump have ordered lowering the Stars and Stripes a combined 14 times so far this year, compared to only eight times at this point last year.
Some days, the reason for a half-staff flag is obvious, such as to remember 9/11, but other days the reason can be a mystery unless you closely follow Walker’s or Trump’s proclamations. Half-staff orders even occasionally overlap in purpose. For instance, Walker’s half-staff order to honor fallen firefighters Oct. 14 last year followed a half-staff proclamation from the president, recognizing fallen firefighters Oct. 8 as part of Fire Prevention Week.
It’s not wrong, of course, to mourn the deaths of firefighters, police officers or lawmakers who’ve died in service to the state and country. Nor is there anything wrong with having special days of remembrance. We acknowledge, too, the difficulty in choosing one reason to lower the flag over another. If one request is denied, inevitably someone’s feelings will be hurt.
But we are concerned the flag is spending too much time at half staff. Overdoing it threatens to diminish the significance of this centuries-old practice. The public might be less inclined to appreciate a truly compelling reason to lower the flag, such Memorial Day (only until noon), if the flag spends much of the year at half staff.
Coming up with new justifications to lower the flag is a bipartisan phenomenon. President George W. Bush became the first president to lower the flag for natural disasters, including the Indian Ocean tsunamis in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He issued 58 half-staff proclamations, while President Barack Obama ordered the flag lowered more than any other president in history: 72 times.
A 2016 Associated Press analysis of proclamations from 50 governors and the federal government found the flag lowered somewhere in the nation on 328 days in 2015.
One way to reduce the amount of time flags fly at half staff would be to tailor half-staff orders to specific geographical areas, instead of the entire state or nation. When an event or death affects a relatively small geographical area, the governor’s office might consider asking only the affected city or county to lower the flag. Walker has issued this type of order only once this year, in January for the city of Osseo in honor of first responder Kari Steen, who died there after a battle with cancer. The order kept the rest of the state’s flags at full staff but still allowed governor’s office to recognize a deserving individual at the local level.
Most people agree the deaths of a U.S. president and other high-profile government figures call for lowering the flag. But when we talk about lowering the flag for lesser-known people and events, that’s when drawing a line on half-staff orders becomes difficult. We don’t claim to have all the answers, but it’s a conversation worth having if we as a society want the half-staff flag to continue to carry a powerful message.