After Charlottesville, I really don’t know what to say.
I’ve started and re-started this column multiple times. I can’t be snarky right now, and I also would like to avoid talking about the president (though that aim will probably fail).
No one is completely blameless in what happened in Virginia on Saturday, but when people showed up at the “Unite the Right” rally and the counter-protest armed with semiautomatic weapons, baseball bats, sticks, pepper spray, shields and helmets, a clash was inevitable. What was also inevitable, after months of inflammatory rhetoric, was that someone would die or be severely injured and that the victim would be ridiculed and blamed.
Heather Heyer, 32, of Charlottesville was one of many counter-protesters at the rally Saturday when police say James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Ohio drove a gray Dodge Challenger into a dispersing group of peaceful activists that included Heyer, leading some “wits” to opine on the Daily Stormer, 4chan and other boards that it was her fault she was killed, and that she was “too fat to jump out of the way” (pure class there, along with critiquing her lack of marriage and children at her age). Nineteen other people were injured, and Fields has been charged with second-degree murder, malicious wounding and hit-and-run. Two Virginia state troopers—Lt. H. Jay Cullen, 48, and Trooper Berke M.M. Bates, 40—tasked with keeping watch over the violence in Charlottesville died a few hours later when their helicopter crashed a few miles from downtown.
Three deaths because people don’t understand that freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from the consequences of that speech, and that violence and terrorism—and terrorism is what it was—aren’t perpetrated by only one group of extremists (if you actually believe the “other” side is the only violent one, you’re badly mistaken). No, having the right to speak freely doesn’t mean you don’t have to be responsible for what you say, or that no one can speak against you. If you use inflammatory speech, don’t expect to go unchallenged … unless you plan to only associate with “your” people. And if you are challenged, violence is the very last place you should go … if at all.
Three deaths because some don’t seem to know that we are all the same inside. Blood isn’t categorized by ethnicity, religion, political ideology or anything, really, other than antibodies and red blood cells. Like me, if you’ve had any surgical procedures, you probably have donor blood and/or tissue in your body, and unless you banked your own blood, it’s possible that that donor doesn’t share much of anything other than blood type with you. But if your beliefs mean that much to you …
Three deaths, and the siren call of truly fake news is just too powerful for some to resist, complete with baseless, inflammatory stories and doctored photos. No, that protester beating a police officer was not Antifa, nor even American—he was a Greek youth photographed in 2009 in Athens, with an Antifa symbol digitally added to his jacket. (For that matter, Antifa wasn’t the only counter-protest group at the rally, even though so much right-wing coverage has named the entire counter-protest as Antifa.)
Nor is there evidence of George Soros and/or Hillary Clinton instigating the entire episode to hurt conservatives. (Seriously, if you believed that before the rally, why take the bait? Not hard to believe this one came from Alex Jones.)
And no, that photo of the president (dang it) at a rally last year with alt-right figure “Millennial Matt,” who was at the Charlottesville rally, is not real; Millennial Matt’s image replaced that of the original person in the photo, Miles Chilson.
Three people didn’t have to die Saturday, but they did. The question now: What are we going to do about it?
For starters, we should recognize that while no one is blameless, the impetus of this was white nationalists’ anger at the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The suspect in the murder of Heather Heyer has been identified as a white nationalist and Trump supporter. The majority of weapons seem to have been sported by those affiliated with the rally (including the militia). If you plan a peaceful protest, why would you be so heavily armed?
We should also recognize why Heyer and the bulk of her compatriots were there: to stand up for justice and against hatred, a goal her father, Mark Heyer, said she was fully committed to. “With her, it wasn’t lip service. It was real, you know. It was something she wanted to share with everyone,” he told USA Today.
Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper:
“She was driven to make people clarify their situation, to make people accountable for their behavior, to make people look at themselves and stop what she believed to be unfair.”
She told the Huffington Post:
“Heather was not about hate, Heather was about stopping hatred. Heather was about bringing an end to injustice. I don’t want her death to be a focus for more hatred. I want her death to be a rallying cry for justice and equality and fairness and compassion.”
Nothing could be a greater tribute to a life cut too short.
As far as the president is concerned (don’t get me started on his Tuesday off-the-rail comments), I’ll leave you with the words of a wise man and Nobel Peace Prize winner. After leaving the White House, Teddy Roosevelt returned to his love of writing, contributing commentary and editorials to the Kansas City Star and The Outlook, as well as writing several books.
In the wake of Charlottesville and the ensuing backlash from the president’s comments about it, I find myself returning to words Roosevelt wrote in a commentary for the May 7, 1918, Kansas City Star:
“The president is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile.
“To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.”
And guess what—truth is covered by freedom of speech.
One more note for longtime readers: For the time being, especially in light of what happened this weekend, I’m suspending Twitter Burns as a regular feature. I’m finding it very hard to find humor in the president’s tweets, so for my own sanity, I’m giving it a rest for now.
If I find something funny, though, I will definitely share. We all need a good laugh right about now.