They found the discarded and destroyed U.S. flags at about 1 a.m. Sunday, an hour into the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Some of the flags had been crushed or snapped in two. Others had been tossed into nearby garbage cans; so many of them had been trashed that they spilled onto the pavement.

“Not one was left in the ground,” according to the Occidental College Republican Club, whose members organized the 9/11 display, then made the alarming discovery on Sunday. “Not only did they destroy the memorial, they put posters and fliers up that shamed the victims of 9/11.”

Hours earlier, the campus group and others from the small college in Los Angeles had set up the somber display on the campus quad.

They painstakingly placed 2,997 flags — one for each victim.

“Today is meant to be a day of respect and remembrance for all the victims and heroes of 9/11,” the group noted.

The destruction apparently happened about midnight. Pictures posted to the Occidental College Republican Club’s Facebook page showed a campus garbage can overflowing with flags. Others were in the grass, apparently kicked over.

Someone had also placed fliers nearby protesting the United States’ war in Iraq.

One flier noted the “Americans who died in 9/11,” then added: “R.I.P. the 1,455,590 innocent Iraqis who died during the U.S. invasion for something they didn’t do.”

“Most of Occidental was asleep at 1 a.m. but not 15 of us,” the Republican Club’s Facebook post read. “Students rallied together to get those flags out of the garbage and up in the quad. This is beyond politics, this is about those lives that were so tragically taken.”

After restoring the memorial, students stood guard, the club said.

“Four Occidental students came up and snapped a few flags right in our faces,” the post said. “When we confronted them, those cowards got away as fast as they possibly could.”

The group added: “We had thought the storm had passed, however, we were very wrong. This morning, students woke up to another lazy attempt at vandalism. Hundreds of flags kicked and smashed, and 50 or so back in the trash. Of course, we put them back in the ground.”

Occidental College officials said an investigation is underway to determine who destroyed the memorial.

No vandals had been identified as of Monday morning, Jim Tranquada, a college spokesman, told The Washington Post.

On Facebook, some commenters posited splenetic theories about who might have been responsible, prompting another note from the Oxy Republicans: “We understand people are frustrated and angry. But please, refrain from racist remarks. That serves no justice. This memorial was meant to remember those who fell, and that post was created to show that students at this school tried to erase the message of remembrance we tried to send out.”

In a message Sunday night, acting dean of students Erica O’Neal Howard encouraged the Occidental community to balance the rights to freedom of speech with the need to respect the opinions of others.

The vandalism, she wrote, went against “the spirit of this institution.”

“The right and freedom to debate complex, contentious issues and disagree with each other is fundamental to what we do at Oxy,” Howard wrote. “At the same time, we may not express ourselves in ways that prevent others from engaging in protected speech. As the Student Handbook states, ‘Occidental College imposes on students, faculty members, administrators, and trustees an obligation to respect the dignity of others, to acknowledge their right to express differing opinions, and to foster and defend intellectual honesty, freedom of inquiry and instruction, and free expression both on and off campus.’ ”

The Occidental College Republican Club “was established to create an engaging and safe environment for students who are politically conservative.” The group’s Facebook logo features the face of Jack Kemp, a nine-term Republican congressman who was a champion of supply-side economics. Kemp, the GOP’s 1996 nominee for vice president, graduated from Occidental in 1957. He died in 2009.

On Facebook, the Republican Club asked students to respect the 9/11 memorial, but said its members are prepared to counter any further vandalism.

“If you try to destroy it, we will rebuild it,” the group vowed.

This post has been updated.

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