Once again, a flag has become a symbol of division.
Less than a month after a massacre in Charleston by a white supremacist spurred nationwide debate over the Confederate flag, another mass shooting has fueled spurious flag rumors and spawned criticism of President Obama.
On Tuesday, the president ordered all American flags on federal grounds to be lowered to half-staff for the remainder of the week to honor the five military service members killed on Sunday in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
But for some critics, Obama’s announcement came too late.
“Oh one more thing, lower the FLAG!!!!!!!! Sir,” former Navy SEAL and “Lone Survivor” author Marcus Luttrell wrote on Monday on Twitter.
Even Donald Trump pre-empted the president, ordering flags on his own U.S. properties lowered Tuesday.
Citing false rumors that Obama had lowered the flag when pop singer Whitney Houston died – in fact, it was New Jersey governor Chris Christie who did her the honor – retired pitcher Curt Schilling slammed the president on social media:
“Flags at half mast for Whitney Houston? 4 Marines and 1 Navy serviceman assassinated by a terrorist on our soil. â » nothing?”
Where the Charleston shooting had stirred soul-searching over the place of the Confederate flag in America, the Chattanooga massacre risks turning the Stars and Stripes into a political punching bag.
The flag is to be flown at half-staff “when the whole nation is in mourning,” according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory,” according to the United States Code. But he has the discretion to lower it as well “whenever he deems it to be appropriate or desirable.”
Recent presidents have “deemed it appropriate” for, among others, Pope John Paul II; Rosa Parks; Neil Armstrong; former House Speaker Thomas Foley; and the victims of the tragedies at Virginia Tech, the Newtown shootings, the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Boston Marathon bombings.
Half-staff flags were flown for foreigners Winston Churchill, Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin and Nelson Mandela, among others.
Among the earliest examples of a half-mast flag in the U.S. was in 1799, when the Navy Department ordered all Navy vessels to “wear their colours half mast high” on the occasion of the death of George Washington.
But why half-staff? Look to history.
“According to one line of scholarly thinking, by lowering the Union Jack, the sailors were making room for the invisible flag of Death,” reports Mental Floss’s Ethan Trex. “This explanation jibes with the British tradition of flying a ‘half-staff’ flag exactly one flag’s width lower than its normal position to underscore that Death’s flag is flapping above it.”
The practice dates back to at least 1612, and an ill-fated mission.
At the beginning of the 17th century, King Christian IV of Denmark sent three successive missions to Greenland to locate long-lost Norse settlements and to claim the massive island for his country. During the first expedition in 1605, Scottish explorer John Cunningham (sailing for Denmark) captured four Inuits and took them prisoner.
The Inuits did not forget. Seven years later, when Englishman James Hall led another, privately funded expedition to the same area in Greenland to look for silver, the Inuits sought their revenge.
“While Hall was in the boat, he was struck by a spear and killed,” according to “Exploring Polar Frontiers: A Historical Encyclopedia.”