An American Tragedy

by Heather Robinson

By now most of the country knows that a 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed Saturday and 19 others injured when a car driven by a white supremacist allegedly rammed into a group of counter-protestors during a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I am very sad about the death of this young woman (pictured above) with whom I share a first name. I believe her death was utterly avoidable and unnecessary, driven by activist hate on both sides of a rancorous, petty, unnecessary fight.

Monday evening I watched Heather’s mother, Susan Bro, on CNN, speak to Anderson Cooper about her daughter’s death. She spoke with the simple eloquence and honesty of someone who has no agenda other than to express grief and love.

A few thoughts on this.

Why is it that people who are actual victims of the worst injustices are rarely those who indulge in ongoing hatred?

Is it perhaps because they don’t have the luxury?

This woman, who has lost so much, allegedly to a white supremacist (or so it seems; we have trials in this country and should await this one) and was clearly suffering as she spoke, did not misdirect her anger at President Trump or his supporters. When Cooper asked her if President Trump’s words today, in which he “used the words KKK and white supremacists” was “important to [her],” she – unlike many of the protestors, columnists, and talking heads who continue to pile on Trump in the wake of this horrific tragedy, simply said, “Yes, it was. I think we need to call out hate when we see hate. I think we need to call out criminal activity where we see criminal activity.”

Also eloquent were her words about the alleged murderer.  It is worth noting the contrast between her calm and deeply wise words and the antics of rage-filled protestors today at Trump Tower who continue to direct anger, not at white supremacists, but at our President, who said today, “Racism is evil—and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

A few more thoughts on this tragedy and its aftermath.

While I can believe some of the Antifa protestors, such as Heather (rest in peace) were sincere in doing what they believed was right in standing up to white supremacists, the leadership of neither side in this absurd melee in Charlottesville acted responsibly. I believe idealistic people like Heather were victims of incitement by divisive activist “leaders.” Perhaps that is what President Trump was getting at when he said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country.” Obviously the white supremacists’ ideology is wicked. But trouble makers on both sides contributed to the powder keg that ignited this tragedy.

Perhaps the President’s initial reticence to condemn white supremacists and the KKK specifically had to do with not wanting to energize these groups (something he has referenced in the past). They are tiny in membership, and they are led by provocateurs. Consider: any attention – even negative attention – is still attention, and that is what extremist groups feed on.

Final thoughts: this week brought the disturbing news that protestors in Durham, N.C. violently tore down a Civil War monument.  Tearing down historical monuments is unnecessary and wrong on several counts.

Even when a symbol is deeply offensive, unless it is being wielded to harass a captive audience, it is only a symbol. It can be educational, and also, the nature of symbols and icons is they can have different meanings for different people, including simply as historical markers. To try to violently remove it, to destroy or erase it, is a totalitarian impulse akin to book burning.

The statue and others like it are a part of America’s history and should remain, unless Americans – after openly and civilly discussing the matter – democratically and lawfully decide together to remove them.

How much better it would be to use these statues to teach children about the evils of slavery, including the reality that not everyone who participated in slavery was, or intended, pure evil; is it possible that then, as now, many people rationalized their dehumanization of other groups of people? Hard to believe anyone ever believed   it was ok to “own” other human beings. Maybe they rationalized the egregious abuse because they saw black people as so different from themselves, as not entirely people? Or maybe they knew the full measure of the evil they were doing but did it anyway out of greed? My point is, it’s a very painful and difficult subject to discuss, but if we had the courage to discuss it, maybe we would learn something, including about ourselves and some of the potential for evil that exists in human nature, across all lines of race and culture. Because we are all human,  we all have good and bad impulses, and are capable of defensiveness, dehumanizing others, rationalizing, etc.

The irony is, this week’s events illustrate how badly needed is that type of honest discussion – including about the complexities of human nature, and how even when we think we are doing the right thing we can sometimes easily slip into doing the wrong one.

Instead, by tearing down monuments and demonizing every individual who fought on the wrong side of the Civil War, the discussion is guaranteed to remain self-centered, with both groups feeling they have a monopoly on virtue that precludes any self-reflection, critical thinking, or bridge-building. People remain in their own self-imposed ghettos, seeking confirmation of their own biases, reinforcing each others’ views on social media, and demonizing and dehumanizing anyone on the other side of the political divide. With so much demonizing going on, there is no ability to have any kind of honest discussion, despite all the phony pleas for an “honest dialogue about race.”

A deep irony of the bad behavior by extremists on both sides is that in refusing to tolerate the rights of fellow Americans to hold different views on how to handle symbols of the Civil War, for instance, and to have a civilized discussion, extremists seem to be agitating for another Civil War (God Forbid). Unlike the first one, however, this one would be about nothing.

After all, thanks to President Abraham Lincoln and union forces in the Civil War that, sadly, actually needed to be fought to rectify a stubborn evil, slavery ended 150 years ago. at the present time, no one is being drafted, and few Americans – white, black, or any color in between – are victims of truly egregious lifelong injustice as some of our ancestors were. Yet we are acting like our petty quarrels and disagreements are the worst injustice anyone has ever faced. What a bunch of spoiled brats we have become. Honestly, and I say this to activists on both sides of this ridiculous political schism, I think most of our ancestors would be embarrassed by our violent, rancorous fights when there is so little at stake for most of us in the day to day.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t people suffering in this country, however. Instead of violently attacking each other over statues, activists could channel their energies into something productive, such as advocating for victims of modern day slavery (including sex trafficked women and children here in the U.S.), and addressing the lack of good mental health infrastructure to begin to address homelessness in the U.S. (unlike statues commemorating the Civil War, the intersection between mental illness and substance abuse that causes homelessness is a real and ongoing problem in this country that deserves a lot more attention, funding, and problem-solving efforts than it gets).

Those who do not learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat them. For dispute over Civil War monuments to spark a second Civil War – this one utterly avoidable and unnecessary, since the truth is we all have it pretty good in this country – would be an ironic American tragedy.

Hopefully the vast majority of “average” Americans know better than to follow the extremists into the fray.

For one thing, average people – unlike loser white supremacist media whores living in their parents’ basements or Ivy-educated “activist” leaders – have to go to work and support families, which tends to be a moderating influence.

Rarely in human history have so many been so outraged about so little.

We need good, old fashioned American common sense now more than ever.

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