‘GOOD’ FLAG-BURNERS VS ‘BAD’….When the right criticizes hate-crime proposals, the main argument seems to be opposition to punishing one’s thoughts. As the argument goes, judge the conduct, not the motivation for the conduct.

With this in mind, I’ve been wondering what these same people might say about the flag-burning amendment that’s supposed to come up for a vote in the Senate next week. Though I suspect proponents would deny it, the measure seems to be aimed, not at those who burn the American flag, but at those who burn the American flag for the wrong reasons.

About a year ago, I was doing some research on flag “desecration” and found dozens of examples across the country of veterans’ groups and Boy Scouts holding public flag-burning ceremonies. In Hazelton, Pa., Tom Kostick, commander of AMVETS Post 253, helped collect thousands of flags for a mass burning and set up a mailbox in front of the VFW building where veterans can donate flags for the ceremony. “It’s the only proper way to it,” Kostick said. “We like to let people know the proper way to dispose of them.” Look at the men in this picture. They’re all burning American flags.

Now, obviously, these aren’t the kinds of incidents that Orrin Hatch and congressional Republicans are worried about. I suspect supporters of the amendment would argue that these public ceremonies are different because the people involved love the United States and were honoring the flag by burning it.

In other words, the argument is “good” people can burn the flag, but “bad” people should be prohibited from doing so, through a constitutional amendment if necessary. People who burn the flag out of reverence should be encouraged, but those who do so in protest should be prosecuted. It’s not how you act; it’s what you’re thinking while you act.

I don’t imagine Hatch or anyone else wants to punish patriotic Americans who burn the flag for all the right reasons, but I’m yet to figure out how the law is supposed to draw the distinction between the respectful and the insolent.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.