Our View: When confronted by evil, be like Heather

August 18, 2017 GMT

The 2012 blockbuster “Django Unchained” won two Academy Awards, with director Quentin Tarantino winning for best original screenplay. The film, set in the pre-Civil War deep South, is a bloodbath, a deeply disturbing and unflinching take on the horrors of slavery.

But it had a few moments of comedy. In a scene that channels “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” a mounted, torch-carrying lynch mob is temporarily foiled by the improperly cut eye-holes in the bags they wear over their heads. After a lot of finger-pointing and arguing, the ringleader finally declares, “I can’t see. You can’t see. So what! All that matters is that the horse can see!”

A perfect commentary on white supremacists -- the blind leading the blind down a torchlit, bloody trail.

Last weekend, that trail went through Charlottesville, Va., home of the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, and the great university he founded, the University of Virginia.

In the days since this senseless tragedy, much has been written and said about President Trump’s responses. The first one, on Saturday, was inadequate and shifted blame to “many sides,” rather than calling out the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who initiated the tragedy. His prepared statement Monday was more appropriate to the gravity of the moment: “Racism is evil,” he said, “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.”

His comments at a press conference Tuesday returned to earlier form and were reprehensible, as top Republican leaders in Congress quickly acknowledged. The president blamed “both sides” for the violence, defended and justified the rationale for the Charlottesville rally, declined to call the killing of a counterprotester “domestic terrorism” and spent more time criticizing the “alt-left” protesters than the white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

We’ve all read about how the white supremacist rally came about, how it was in part motivated by the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. But what caused James Alex Field Jr., the man accused of driving his car into a street filled with counterprotesters, killing one, to turn homicidally violent Saturday?

According to news reports, the circumstances are all too familiar. Take a disturbed, isolated young man who is angry at the world. In this case, Field was previously accused of violent behavior, including beating his mother and threatening her with a knife. Give him access to an online world where he easily can find people who tell him he’s right, that his lot in life is the fault of blacks, Jews, Asians and homosexuals, and that it’s time for white America to rise up and reclaim its birthright.

Then put him at a rally where he feels empowered by the company of hundreds of like-thinking people and whip him into a frenzy with declarations about racial purity, white honor and a twisted version of American history.

The result: A searingly destructive day in Virginia that reopened wounds that go back centuries.

Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman who was killed, was remembered by friends and family as a peace-loving, principled woman who “stood up against any type of discrimination. That’s just how she’s always been.”

At moments like this, it’s important for all of us to be like Heather and stand up against “any type of discrimination” -- against racist language and hate speech that we see and hear in our daily lives, against those who would divide the country by race and intolerance.

As two former presidents said Wednesday -- George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush -- “America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms. As we pray for Charlottesville, we are reminded of the fundamental truths recorded by that city’s most prominent citizen in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. We know these truths to be everlasting because we have seen the decency and greatness of our country.”

For all his virtues, Jefferson was a slave owner and an imperfect man of his times, but he and the Founders perfectly expressed the vision for our country that we all aspire to. What happened in Charlottesville can become an important step in progress toward that vision, if we all speak up.