The tragic death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia is on everyone’s mind this week and is on mine as well. It is a basic human instinct to try to make sense of the senseless. After a few days to digest what we witnessed and the reactions that have come from it, some thoughts.
Let us get one thing out of the way right up front: I have no use for the message of the protesters in Charlottesville last weekend. Whether they are white supremescists, neo-Nazis, members of the alt-right, nativists (I have seen all of these descriptions used) I find their views to be destructive and repellent and want nothing to do with them. That out of the way, I have two ways of approaching this disaster: as a lawyer and as a Catholic.
My first thought is “who are these people, anyhow?” I am a white guy from the midwestern US. I don’t know any of these people. Or if I do know some of them they keep their views well hidden from me. Moreover, I am fairly well read and do not see their views expressed in anything approximating a “mainstream conservative” publication or news source. I do not doubt that they are out there, but let’s call them what they are: the lunatic fringe.
Both sides, extreme right and extreme left, have a lunatic fringe, a fact that should be self-evident. There are unhinged young men who run cars into people ISIS style because those people are protesting the right wing nut jobs and unhinged young men who walk into a bible study in a black church in order to kill church members just because they are black. Then there are the loose screws on the opposite end of the spectrum who become snipers in an attempt to kill Republican members of congress because they are Republicans or another case of a black man who shot three people because they were white. There would seem to be more similar than different in these perpetrators of terror and hate. An older generation would have called each of them crazy.
After hearing from so many who are fine with doing whatever is necessary to silence those who have repellent things to say, the lawyer in me wonders just what these people have learned in school. In 1969, our U. S. Supreme Court (a court devoid of those pesky conservatives that so many bemoan today, for those who do not know) decided the case of Brandenburg v. Ohio.
In that case, a group of Klansmen (some armed) came together for a small rally in the presence of some newsmen. The leader was arrested under a World War I-era Ohio law that outlawed advocacy of violence or illegal activity to effectuate reform. The Supreme Court reversed the conviction, holding that the Klansmen were allowed to advocate even violence so long as they did not advocate imminent lawless action and that such advocacy would not be likely to actually incite such action.
This is how the United States is different from Nazi Germany in 1940 (or from North Korea or Venezuela in 2017, for that matter): Citizens are entitled to hold unpopular and even repugnant ideas and are entitled to express those views in public without fear of government repression. They are not, of course, entitled to engage in violence. Good grief, what has the world come to when it is left to conservative old me to play ACLU and explain civil liberties to what seems like the rest of the world?
“OK Mr. Lawyer, how do we stop people like this from spewing hate?” I’m glad you asked.
In 1979 the Ku Klux Klan marched in Waynedale, Indiana, a not particularly affluent suburb of Fort Wayne. Nobody remembers it because nothing happened. A pathetic little group of pathetic little people held their pathetic little march and all the decent people ignored them. This is how it is supposed to work. Didn’t our mothers used to tell us to just ignore idiots and that they would almost always go away?
But that is not what happens today. A pathetic fringe group that is way, way too insignificant to get even a county clerk elected to office anywhere in the country wants to draw attention to itself – so it goes where it can provoke. The professional protesters of the left (another fringe group that lacks numbers to get anyone elected) converge to get in the faces of the first fringe group to show how intolerant they are of intolerance because, well, that’s just what they do. Confrontation ensues and of course news outlets from everywhere are there to encourage a show.
A word about those counter-protesters. If they only appeared to protest white supremacists and neo-Nazis, (or if they were peaceful) they wouldn’t be such an issue. But they are also out hurting people and causing massive damage in order to keep speakers away from college campuses or to disrupt political rallys. Which sounds a lot like Naziism to me. Which is why if I see one more meme on social media drawing parallels between heroic World War II G.I.s dying to liberate the prisoners of a cruel, illegitimate government and the lawless, violent freelance protesters like Antifa I’m going to throw up.
So we have the right wing fringe (there to provoke the left), the left wing fringe (there to provoke the right) and the news media – how is this different from cockfighting? And just like in cockfighting there are a few winners. The participants on both sides get to look bigger and more important than they really are and those bringing the viewing audience make money. Nothing encourages bad behavior among those already disposed to it like a bunch of breathless reporters backed up by television cameras. Think about it: Each one of the three participants (right-wing extremists, left-wing extremists and a ratings-driven press) gives the other two the fertile soil to grow and flourish.
It was surely a coincidence that the Monday immediately following the weekend of the ugly events was the day that the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe. Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan Catholic priest in the 1930s. His monastery was active in publishing and made no effort to downplay its vehement opposition to the atrocities of Nazi Germany, which he continued to publish right up until the Nazis came for him. I refer to Real Nazis, not the bottom-feeding wannabes found in pockets of the U.S. today.
Fr. Kolbe was arrested in 1941 and imprisoned at Auschwitz along with thousands of other Catholic priests and nuns, who suffered no less than their jewish brothers and sisters. He was harshly beaten but did his best to live out his priestly vocation by offering communion with contraband bread and by hearing confessions.
After an escape by some prisoners, the guards rounded up ten inmates to be killed as an example to the others. When one of the men so chosen pleaded about having a wife and children, Fr. Kolbe volunteered to take his place. For weeks, Fr. Kolbe suffered and prayed with the other nine as one by one they died from lack of food and water. When their number was down to only four still alive, each of them (including Fr. Kolbe) was injected with carbolic acid and killed.
Maximilian Kolbe, it seems to me, shows the way to defeat today’s Nazis, skinheads and all of the other ideological diseases of our modern world. Where the activists on the fringes create noise, discord and violence everywhere they go, decent people all across the “normal” 95% of the political spectrum have the opportunity to simply be human. To treat those around us with kindness and respect in whatever ways that we can, no matter how “they” may differ from “us”. And to condemn the instigation of violence for political causes wherever it may be found.
We will not defeat those who preach hate by becoming like them. We can only defeat them by not becoming like them.