The events of 11 August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia were tragic on many levels. First, a life was taken in the name of something the world put down 72 years ago. Nineteen people were injured in the attack. It was terrorism, a term that needs no qualifier, for its practitioners are all equally abhorrent. Similarly tragic is the idea that people with such views feel welcome to come out of the dank spaces they have been hiding in their whole lives. They are emboldened by an administration specifically tailored toward their nativist views and are now basking in the final tragic event of the weekend, the fact that it took the president 48 hours to denounce by name the hate groups responsible for the violent end of the “Unite the Right” protest. It is hard to acknowledge any good could come from such a despicable display of the depths of human nature, but perhaps there is one thing this tragedy highlights that may serve to propel us forward. For once and all, we finally see the dark heart of the movement to hold on to seditionist monuments. This weekend, the flags of two banished hostile powers finally flew seamlessly together.
I moved to Georgia from Virginia during the aftermath of the mass shooting in a Charleston church. That crime was committed by a hate-filled young man seen displaying Confederate Battle Flags and espousing white supremacist ideology in pictures and words released after the fact. He, we were told, was not representative of the crowd who cared only about southern “heritage.” My social media feed was filled with comments by friends I graduated with from high school in Montgomery, Alabama lamenting that it seemed you couldn’t be white, male, and from the south anymore. It was, had I been savvy enough to recognize it, exactly the sentiment our president was tapping into—the self-victimization of a majority class benefitting from the privilege such a station bestows while claiming to suffer persecution as a minority they increasingly claimed to be. It was then with utter shock that I observed a makeshift parade of pickup trucks flying Confederate flags and stopping traffic in Cleveland, Georgia on the 4th of July. Confederate flags on the 4th of July.
In the weeks and months after Charleston, the “heritage not hate” movement became more visible. While South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, took the bold stance of removing the Confederate Battle Flag from the state grounds, other states and cities began similar campaigns. These were met with increasing opposition from groups walking the fine line between recalling history and embracing it. But this movement to remove Confederate statues—really to relocate them to more teachable venues—also raised the ire of white supremacists and nationalists. Ostensibly to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in what is now called Emancipation Park, these supremacists and nationalists descended on the home of the author of the Declaration of Independence and began to publicly defile the cherished content of that document and the very concept of governance it granted to the world.
We are, unfortunately, used to seeing one-time symbols of sedition and treason held up as proud southern heritage. Were what we saw in Charlottesville only that, it would have been bad enough. Here though, for the first time in my memory, was the willful confluence of Confederate iconography with symbols representing the most destructive and immoral foreign power ever to hold a place in the history of humankind. Hitler’s Third Reich purposefully exterminated 12 million human beings. The effort to crush his supremacist views and free the world of tyranny cost 50 to 80 million lives worldwide. Yet here, in the United States of America, citizens of the nation that led the world in the fight against authoritarianism based on racial supremacy marched under the banner of the Nazi flag. They were joined by those carrying Confederate Battle Flags, and now the world need have no more question about the place those symbols should hold in our culture.
There were perhaps as many as 750,000 war dead from the U.S. Civil War, the most of any of our nation’s conflicts. There are those who may rightly claim their ancestors fought with justice and honor on the side of the Confederacy. The separation of jus ad bellum, regarding the decision by a political authority to go to war, and jus in bello, regarding just conduct by military forces in war, allows this seeming dichotomy to exist. It is possible both to fight an unjust war well and to commit war crimes and atrocities in a just war. It is for this reason I can understand those who want respect for the manner in which their ancestors conducted themselves in an unjust war. Such understanding, though, cannot be offered without concession. They must first admit that it was an unjust war, that a war fought for the right to enslave their fellow men and women cannot be justified. They must acknowledge that war as a rebellion against the country they now call home, the country that has granted them the freedom to live on their own merit and without the judgment of the cause for which their ancestors toiled. And they must disavow the symbols of that rebellion and stop clinging to them as representative of their ancestors’ heritage. Those symbols represent the unjustified use of force by a treasonous political authority; they do not represent the just conduct of those who deserve the honor of our memory. The events in Charlottesville should remove any doubt about associating Confederate symbols with honored war dead.
Whether it is “heritage” or a racist symbol is immaterial now. Confederate symbols no longer belong to anyone wishing they could only represent a southern pride. In truth, they have not done so in many years. Those symbols were long ago hijacked by those still fighting for the cause they have always represented. Like it or not, Confederate symbols do represent hate. The world cannot “unsee” what it saw outside the gates of Monticello. Swastikas, the “stars and bars” of the true flag of the Confederacy, and the ubiquitous Confederate Battle Flag are all representative of the same ideas; that there is such a thing as “race,” that those who are white are superior, and that killing for that idea is still a worthy cause.
I have been wrestling with what my grandfather might have thought about seeing a flag he fought against carried down Main Street, USA. From the serenity of the English countryside he flew into the maelstrom of combat over places like Dresden, Schweinfurt, and Berlin. He lost one of his crew and saw hundreds of his countrymen fall to their fiery deaths trying to bomb the Nazi war machine into oblivion. He was 21 years old and in command of 9 men. I think I know what my father would think. His was a flawed war to free Vietnam from the grips of Communist authoritarianism. He was spit on in an airport upon his return, an exercise of free expression the Vietnamese would no longer know. I know how I feel. I spent 25 years fighting tyranny in the Middle East, part of it during another flawed war of choice. I’m more than willing for those here at home to exercise their freedom of conscience and speech, just as those white supremacists were doing in Charlottesville before they turned violent. Brave men and women—men and women far better than they can ever hope to be—gave them that right. When evil is allowed to speak its mind, it clarifies an issue. I encourage such clarification. I want them to have their say, to slide out from under their rock and declare for the world what they really are, to highlight the fallacy we’ve long known existed about how to conceive of Confederate symbols, to finally understand the moral equivalence of all ideologies based on racial superiority. That those who most fervently believe in them freely illustrated that equivalence is a gift we could hardly have dared wish for. Writers cannot be called out for “false equivalence” when the white supremacists made the equivalence themselves.
This we should all now know. If you march under the banner of a hostile power, one the entire world took up arms against or one only the U.S. Army stood against, you are no patriot. You are not representative of the ideals of the nation which has granted you the right to declare yourself an enemy of the state. That you would do so in so blatant a manner is again something we would not have dared dream. But having done so, you are now the most recent reason for the line in the U.S. military officers’ oath that pledges to defend the Constitution against “all enemies, foreign and domestic…” And when you decide to kill innocents, you are no better than any other claiming a divine, or any other, right to do so.
It is for this reason that the response of our president was so inadequate. For a man who cannot find the will to hold back on the most banal kinds of things, to not confront the terrorism and racism that run counter to our being as a nation is simply a dereliction of duty. While I find the actions of the president lacking in the extreme, perhaps the words of another president can move the nation once more to act against an ideology we twice defeated on the battlefield and dreamed we had once defeated in the halls and on the steps of Congress. “…the man who loves his country on it’s [sic] own account, and not merely for it’s [sic] trappings of interest or power, can never be divorced from it: can never refuse to come forward when he finds that she is engaged in dangers which he has the means of warding off.” Those are the words of President Thomas Jefferson, resident of Charlottesville, Virginia.
Our country is indeed engaged in grave dangers. Our president, wallowing in the trappings of interest and power, has proved no ability or desire to ward off such dangers. In fact, he has stoked them at every turn. It falls to us then, as President Jefferson knew it always would, to stand against the dangers to our republic. One person died this weekend under the boot of the racial superiority proclaimed by both Nazism and the Confederacy. Let there be no more. 80,750,001 is enough.