Driving by the local prison, I've seen the American flag flown outside has been at half-mast the last two days; which is a signal of respect for an important tragedy or loss. However, I wasn't sure what tragedy the honor was for.
The only explanation I could think of was the recent death of Ted Kennedy from a brain tumor, but that didn't seem quite right. Sure, Kennedy was a well-known politician from nearby Massachusetts, and he had been in the senate for a long time - 47 years - but why does that warrant a half-mast flag in another state, and why two days in a row?
So I called the prison and sure enough, it was for Kennedy. The employee who answered the phone said the flag will continue to be at half-mast until Sunday. A little digging revealed a presidential proclamation for the lowered flags until Sunday, Aug. 30.
I don't care to get into the details of Kennedy's life, accomplishments, mistakes or politics. Whatever my opinion is on Kennedy, he was a senator from another state and therefore of lesser relevance to Maine. Can his death really be quantified in Maine exactly as terrible as the loss of five Maine soldiers?
My problem with half-mast days is that they occur too often. Reasonable people can disagree on what qualifies as a half-mast day in an individual state; such as the death of a soldier from that state, elected leaders, beloved individuals and tragedies with large body counts. In our current system, each individual death has a value. An event like the Virginia Tech massacre would qualify not because of any single individuals value, but the sum of the victims and the shock of the event itself.
That being said, when you lower the value required to trigger a half-mast, the relative value - and impact - of a half-mast day goes down.
And thus, we have consecutive days of flags at half-mast. The death of presidents John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan triggered entire half-mast months because one day was considered too low a value.
I don't know, but I do suspect, that we have a creeping inflation rate of half-mastitude. Unlike monetary inflation, however, there are a finite number of days in the calendar and we can agree that a year where the flag is flown at half-mast everyday is a problem. Events like the death of Pope Jean Paul the second and Coretta Scott King were certainly tragic, but did they really warrant a national display
While there are rules to how many half-mast days some event triggers, responses to events like Ted Kennedy's death are open-ended (and therefor arbitrary; I can't find anything firmly stating if Bush ordered flags at half-mast for the death of Strom Thurmond in 2003. He was also a senator for 47 years)
I'm curious to how people would respond to a quarter-mast flag - one fourth of the way from the top of the flagpole. On the one hand, it might show respect for some tragedies while not dampening the power of the half-mast for the bigger ones. The risk, however, is that some people may resent having their loved ones honored with anything less than a half-mast.
Another option is to limit half-mast displays to a single day for all tragedies. This would take away the implied value of any individual tragedy and keep us from watering down the impact of this symbolic gesture of respect.