Penn Jillette: Why we burned the flag for freedom

Story highlights

  • Penn Jillette: I've burned -- and magically restored -- many US flags on stage
  • Jillette: The trick is meant to be patriotic and a way to celebrate our freedoms

Penn Jillette, a writer, television host and frequent guest on a wide range of shows, is half of the Emmy Award-winning magic act duo Penn & Teller. His new book, "Presto," comes out in August. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)At the beginning of this century, Teller and I made a TV show in which we traveled around the world watching street magicians. These weren't conjurers who worked for tourists, but the magicians who performed for locals. We spent the nights in fairly nice hotels, but the days we spent on the streets in real Egypt, real China and real India.

Before this trip, we'd never considered ourselves overly patriotic; we never really thought about it. But we landed back in the USA feeling that John Wayne was a bit too hippie for our taste. Nothing can make you love the USA more than overseas travel.
Penn Jillette
When we got back to doing our own magic show at our own theater in Las Vegas, we wanted to do a new magic trick that would express our newly-understood patriotism. We wanted to publicly salute the American flag and the republic for which it stands.
Overseas, we saw poverty, disease and injustice, but what really struck us, what made us kiss the ground at McCarran airport in Las Vegas, Nevada, United States of America, was freedom. Freedom was what those other countries were so sorely lacking -- freedom that we must never take for granted.
We decided to do a magic trick that would celebrate the freedoms we could now taste so intensely. One of the standard plots in magic is a restoration. You rip, cut, tear or burn something and restore it into one piece.
Usually a restoration means nothing but sleight of hand skill. You borrow a handkerchief, put in a rolled up piece of paper, burn it up, and then "abracadabra" it's back! It's a miracle for no reason.
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But what if instead of a handkerchief that meant nothing, we used a piece of cloth that was nothing but meaning? What if we used the flag of the United States of America? And what if instead of a meaningless piece of paper to wrap it in, we wrapped it in first 10 amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America, the Bill of Rights?
What if, instead of "abracadabra," we used a verse of "The Star Spangled Banner," and what if the magic power the audience would cheer for was the freedom to burn the very flag that we loved so dearly? What if the magic of freedom restored the burnt flag?
Every night in our show we burned an American flag and then, with the celebration of freedom of speech, we made it reappear, whole, waving high on its flagpole. We did that trick thousands of times live for a couple million people, and every performance my eyes teared up just a little bit.
Many veterans and other patriots told us after the show it was their favorite magic trick. We didn't kid ourselves; carny trash like Penn & Teller don't deserve that kind of reaction. These people were cheering freedom.
Without the right to burn the flag, without that freedom of expression, the flag is just a piece of cloth. It means nothing. With that freedom, with our Bill of Rights, it's the greatest symbol on earth. It's magic.
For the TV show "The West Wing" we performed our flag burning trick at the fictional first daughter's birthday party. Within the plot of the show, some people didn't understand our passionate magic trick. They didn't understand that it was a celebration of freedom, and they demanded to know whether we'd burned a flag in the White House.
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The fictional president stuck up for us and explained that the Supreme Court and the Founding Fathers knew that for the flag to be revered, it must stand for real freedom.
Do we really burn a flag in that trick? Do we symbolically burn the flag? Or do we vanish the flag in a patriotic flash of fireworks? It doesn't matter at all. The flag burning trick is a celebration of American freedom any way you look at it.
Maybe some people don't understand what really makes this country great. Maybe they think it's a crime if Penn & Teller burned a flag on national TV. Maybe some people will think that we should go to jail, or lose our citizenship, for a patriotic magic trick.
I sure hope no one misunderstands our simple message because I promise you that although many other Americans love this country as much as I do -- no one loves it more. America has always been great.