NEW YORK – Along the tree-lined streets of one patriotic Brooklyn neighborhood, the American flag waves proudly from porches, from cars — even from the back of a 3-year-old's red tricycle.
So when residents in the Marine Park section arose last week to discover the "Stars and Stripes" were torched outside eight homes — including one where a firefighter killed in the Sept. 11 attacks grew up — they didn't cower.
They raised new and bigger flags.
"We don't want these cowards to win," said Regina Coyle, whose son James died in the World Trade Center terrorist attack. "People are angry and hurt. We're fighting back."
The American flag outside the Coyles' home was burned right down to the scorched white flagpole fastened to the front of the red brick house. It had flown bravely outside the home every day since the death of her 26-year-old firefighter son.
Sitting in the kitchen of the row house where she and her husband, a state court officer, had raised James and two siblings, Mrs. Coyle recalled the shock of discovering a pile of ashes flecked with red, white and blue nylon on her front stoop as she left to walk her dog on the morning of June 22.
"I lost my son, how could someone do this to us?" Mrs. Coyle wondered. Her son had jumped into a taxi with two other young firefighters and headed down to ground zero on Sept. 11 even though they had just finished their shift, she recalled.
Marine Park, known for its patriotic fervor, is a blue-collar community comprised mostly of firefighters, policemen and transit workers. Scores of their relatives and friends were lost on Sept. 11, 2001.
The corners of six streets are named for fallen comrades; the Coyle's corner is named for their hero. A pair of fire hydrants are striped with red, white and blue paint.
It's a close-knit neighborhood where block parties and garage sales are common, where World War II veterans sit on porches as local kids ride past on bicycles. The flag burnings stung particularly hard in this old school section of southern Brooklyn.
"For someone to burn the flag was like a smack in the face," said Barbara Davis, a 45-year-old mother of three whose flag was set ablaze. "We were always taught to have such reverence for the flag. We wouldn't even let it touch the ground."
Her 6-year-old son Benjamin begged his father not to hang another flag for fear of a repeat attack.
"My husband said: 'No son, we have to stand up for our flag,"' said Davis, standing on the sidewalk with Benjamin. The boy promptly opened his shirt to display a temporary tattoo of a flag on his chest.
"I love America," he boasted.
Police are investigating the arson crime but so far have made no arrests, said police spokesman Detective John Sweeney.
Investigators told residents they suspect the desecration was more the work of intoxicated teenagers celebrating the last day of school, or possibly a pyromaniac, rather than a war protester or someone making an anti-American statement.
"The police are not taking this lightly," said Susie Campbell. "They are keeping us very closely informed."
Residents shudder when they think that the fire could have destroyed their homes or killed someone, said Campbell, who has an infant and a toddler.
"I feel like those people who found crosses burning in their yards," Campbell said. "It hurts."
There doesn't seem to be much debate in this community about support for a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration. A proposed bill to protect the flag, in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings in 1989 and 1990 that burning the flag was protected as free speech by the First Amendment to the Constitution, died in the Senate last week by a single vote.
"I know this is the land of the free, that there are different points of view, that it's a democracy, but we vote to change things here," Campbell said.
Her two neighbors agreed.
"The American flag means our country and those that died to keep us free," said Coyle. "It represents honor and respect and our values and the people. America is you and me."
Regardless of the motivation, local residents didn't understand why anyone would desecrate what they hold dear.
"They can smash pumpkins, steal your flowers, but burn the flag?" said Coyle. "They should be ashamed."