The nation honored the memory of Neil Armstrong Friday with the lowering of flags to half staff. It was a deserving gesture, and could only have been more powerful had the gesture itself not become so commonplace.
The national salute to Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon, represented the fifth time in the first eight months of 2012 that the flag has been lowered nationally by presidential order. But that’s just nationally. Add to that the nine occasions on which Gov. Sam Brownback has ordered flags to be lowered statewide and you have 14 such recognitions, nearly one every two weeks.
During calendar year 2011, flags in Manhattan were lowered about 20 times either by presidential or gubernatorial decree.
Without intending to diminish the sacrifices or accomplishments of those intended to be recognized by these gestures, the simple fact is that the more frequently one does something (such as lowering a flag), the less impact the gesture carries.
There once was a time when public officials, recognizing this reality, lowered the flag only on Memorial Day (and then only until noon) and at most on one or two other occasions annually, usually commemorating the deaths of statesmen. Today, one gets the sense that national and state executives order the flag to be lowered chiefly as a defensive measure, fearing criticism for appearing cold and heartless if they don’t do so.
As noted at the outset, no slight is directed toward anyone, and certainly not to Neil Armstrong. But if the government truly wants to commemorate his passing, it could consider a more meaningful method.
What Mr. Armstrong’s life and accomplishments represented was the triumph of American exceptionalism in space. That time has long since passed, but there is no reason — certainly no technological reason — why it could not be revived. The fact is that the space race was always about national pride in accomplishment, and while that motivation may seem shallow today, it is actually the opposite. Pride in accomplishment is the first prerequisite to actual accomplishment because it reflects the drive necessary to achieve.
To truly honor Neil Armstrong, this nation ought to reassert its primary role in manned space flight, establish and then meet visionary exploration goals. Such an effort would not only honor a generation of moon walkers that is quickly dying off, but would inspire a new generation of prospective scientists, engineers and adventurers to understand what America can accomplish. That would be a lasting legacy to Neil Armstrong indeed.