The American flag is flying at half-staff this week at all U-S government buildings. The White House issued the order as a mark of respect for Pope John Paul II. It's a custom typically reserved for mourning the death of a president, a member of Congress or other national leader. Whitney Smith, Director of the Flag Research Center, says lowering the flag for a non-American religious leader is unusual ... but not unheard of.
WS: In terms of the international prominence of the Pope, and in terms of the kind of image that the United States likes to project internationally, I think having a Presidential Proclamation on the half-staffing was not unexpected.
VOA: What do you mean, the kind of image?
WS: Everything in the official area of display of flags, of protocol in general, is intended to have some kind of an impact. And we use that, and every other country does as well, to signal certain things about our approach as a nation, or at least the administration, to individuals and countries. And to ignore, by not having the half-staffing, would itself have been a message.
VOA: The United States is so religiously diverse, do you think that this sets a precedent for other religious figures, religious leaders, who die?
WS: I think probably not, because it's a combination of things. The head of the Jain religion in India, for example, is terribly important to his followers, and there may be millions of them, but he would be unknown to 99.99% of the American public. And I think it would be very unlikely that he would be so recognized. And there would be others in that category. I think the only other person that immediately comes to mind who might be so honored would be the Dalai Lama. I think that would be likely. But as far as non-U.S. religious figures are concerned, it's really a very small group that would be in that category as likely to be so honored.
VOA: Is it unusual that the flag will fly at half-staff for an entire week?
WS: It is, because the flag code, which was adopted by Congress and is a set of guidelines for what is to be done, the rules in most cases, for other U-S government figures, it's for a much shorter period of time.
Whitney Smith, director of the Flag Research Center in Winchester, Massachusetts, says Americans have been flying the flag at half-staff to honor the dead ever since the first president, George Washington, died in 1799. The tradition itself dates back to the 17th century. Records from aboard ships show that when someone died, it was customary to unhoist the sails, untie the ropes, and not fully raise the flag to symbolize how death upsets the orderliness of human life.