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Guest Editorial: Time has come for a reckoning with history
Saturday, Aug. 12, was a tragic day in America. The wound of race hatred was reopened. An act of domestic terror took a life. America’s incivility and division was brutishly exposed.
For a “Unite the Right” alt-right event, hundreds of white nationalists marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Va., proclaiming white supremacy and anti-Semitism, brandishing Confederate flags and Nazi symbols. They came largely from out of town to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, erected in 1924. Counterprotesters, some known as “anti-facists,” turned out in equal force.
The day culminated in death. A man drove his car at high speed into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and wounding at least 19 others. Two Virginia state police officers died as well, when their helicopter crashed while surveilling the events.
On Saturday, President Donald Trump condemned the violence “on many sides,” but many people — including his daughter Ivanka — recognized that the statement failed to name the specific evil at the heart of this violence: white nationalism.
If Mr. Trump was right to score his predecessor on his failure to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” then the evil in Charlottesville also must be named.
On Monday, Mr. Trump delivered a statement that said, in part: “No matter the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws, we all salute the same great flag, and we are all made by the same almighty God. We must love each other, show affection for each other, and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence. We must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans. ... Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
The words were welcome. But ultimately more important than what the president has to say is what the federal government is doing. The Department of Justice has opened a federal civil-rights investigation into the car attack. Attorney General Jeff Sessions properly said that “when such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated.”
Meanwhile, the debate over the removal of the Lee statue has been thrown into sharp relief, the Charlottesville episode being just the latest flashpoint over Civil War monuments in the South. The passions invoked are often puzzling to Northerners, victors in a war that is not unfinished business to many below the Mason-Dixon line. While history cannot be erased, especially its tragedies, Americans need to be able to face all of the nation’s history, including the history of the Confederacy. One-third of Americans have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy.
The “Unite the Right” horde that gathered in Charlottesville spewed the worst thoughts that can be expressed. White supremacy and anti-Semitism are evils that, like hatred itself, have been part of humanity for ages. The American tradition of free speech, however, serves two purposes. Letting angry people speak allows us all to see what is in our midst; suppressing speech drives people to isolation. The online communities where like minds gather are a window on a sickness that can be addressed by more speech.
Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Aug. 15