In These Tragic Times, Are There More Half-Staff Flags?

In the frigid lavender dawn, when many of us are still in bed, or clutching our warm coffee cups or huddled around stoves, or in warm vehicles or train cars on our way to work one person is already at their post, located at your local park, post office, or court house, about to do their job: raise the flag.

Through the bomb cyclones and polar vortexes and nor’easters and mudslides, tornadoes, and hurricanes the flag raiser is always there. And as the climate changes and the world becomes perhaps wetter, stormier and all around more meteorologically wild, the flag raiser will remain. Yet in our turbulent times, filled with horrendous mass shootings and tragic attacks and battlefields deaths, just who is it that gets to decide when to raise the flag half-staff? And has the calculus for that decision changed over time, as the nature and pace of our tragedies has changed?

I set out to find these answers for Digital Dying, but the close-knit community of flag raisers keeps a tight lid on their secrets. “I don’t know, I would have to check on that,” Matt, of the American Flagpole and Flag Company, based in Lake Elmo, Minnesota, told me when I called company headquarters earlier this week and asked whether it seemed to him that half-staff tragedies were indeed increasing. A call in to Gettysburg Flag Works, located in East Greenbush, New York, south of Albany and not far from me, yielded a similar dead-end. So, I journeyed instead to that great explainer of all things, the internet, to learn about flag half-staffing, and found the following.

While it may seem that flags these days are being raised half-staff willy-nilly, there are only five official federal dates when a flag is to be raised half-staff. The first is May 15th, which is known as Peace Officers Memorial Day, when tribute is paid to local, state, and federal peace officers who have died, or been disabled in the line of duty. There is Memorial Day, the last Monday in May. And there is September 11th, which based on a bill initially introduced by Republican New York Congressman Vito Fossella right after 9/11 and signed into law by President Bush was declared to be called Patriot Day, a “National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the Victims of the Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001.” There is October 7th, National Firefighters Memorial Day, an official national tribute to all firefighters who died in the line of duty during the previous year. And there is December 7th, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.

Interesting to note, and typical of the peculiarities of flag raising, is that on all these dates the flag is raised to half-staff at sunrise and lowered at sunset, the next day to be raised full again. But on Memorial Day the flag is only intended to be at half-staff until noon, at which time it is raised full. And why no half-staff flag on Veteran’s Day? Because, explains a page on Gettysburgflag.com regarding the rules of half-staff flags, “This is a day to honor our nation’s veterans. It is not a day of mourning.”

Why then does it appear that flags are being set at half-staff so often? For one, the strict codes for half-staff flags, as pointed out by Gettysburgflag only apply to government installations. “Private citizens and non-government buildings may choose to fly their flags at half-staff to honor more local leaders,” says the site.

And how do you raise a flag half-staff that can’t be lowered in the first place, such as the flags on most homes? The American Legion, says Gettysburgflag, suggests attaching a black ribbon or streamer to the top of the flag as “an acceptable alternative. The ribbon should be the same width as a stripe on the flag and the same length as the flag.”

As for the ordering of a half-staff flag for an occurrence outside of the five sanctioned half-staff dates, such as a battlefield death or national tragedy, only the President of the United States or the governor can make the call. Again, when I pressed Matt over at the American Flagpole and Flag Company on this point, he simply said, “We ship flagpoles and flags direct throughout the United States,” and directed me to their website.

There are indeed certain events that officially call for a half-staff flag. After the death of a president or former president a flag must be raised half-staff for 30 days. After the death of a vice president, chief justice, retired chief justice or speaker of the house the flag must be raised half-staff for ten days. After the death of a member of Congress, two days. And as for the death of an associate justice of the Supreme Court, secretary of a military department, former vice president, or governor, the flag is to be raised half-staff until the day of burial.

At halfstaff.org, which features the seal of the President of the United States and appears to be an official government site, or at least be representing one, I was at last able to find some Half Mast Flag News, along with a list of recent half-staff notices. The last half-staff date appears to have been December 7, 2017, when flags were at half-staff to honor National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, one of the five federally designated half-staff dates. Going back further I noticed that on November 6, 2017 flags were at half-staff to honor the victims of the Sutherland Springs, Texas Shooting, and on October 2, 2017 flags were at half-staff to honor the victims of the Las Vegas Tragedy. And one can scroll back. September 11, 2017 was half-staff for Patriot Day, May 29 for Memorial Day, May 15 for Peace Officers Memorial Day, and April 6, 2017 for the Final Burial of John Glenn.

So, within the past year, other than the already designated half-staff dates there were two tragedies, and the death of one astronaut, both events presumably declared—as they must have been according to the law of the flag—by the President. Which still leaves the question hanging, just how tragic does a tragedy have to be these days for the President to declare a flag to be raised at half-staff? We will be putting in a request to the President’s office for this information. Or, drop us a comment if you have any info.

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