Monday, August 14, 2017
peace be to these streets
Mr. President --
I am writing this open letter to you following the tragedy in Charlottesville on Saturday.
One of your spokesmen has announced your goal is to pull the nation together. That is what you should be doing, but you are not.
I have been thinking about how two of your predecessors, who had a good grasp on what Americans felt and knew exactly how to direct the best in them, would have acted. How would Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have tried to unite us?
First, they would not have hesitated in pointing out that the white supremacists, who came armed for trouble, and the anarchists, who were ready to sign their dance cards, are not representative of the vast majority of Americans who abhor the views espoused by the neo-Nazis, KKK, other white supremacists, and anarchists.
Both groups seem to believe they are living in Germany in the early 1930s when Nazi thugs and Communist and Socialist thugs battled in the streets of the Weimar Republic as a dress rehearsal for the Spanish civil war which was a preview of the Second World War.
Second, they would then point out that the views of the demonstrators on both sides are protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment exists to protect unpopular views -- to give a free space where we can all meet to discuss our political philosophies.
And this the tricky part. Leasers need to be very careful about saying viewpoints have no place in American society. That runs the risks of legitimizing physical attacks on the proponents of unpopular views. It is exactly the same mistake we made during World War Two with the internment of the Japanese and in World War One with the incarceration of Eugene Debs.
The First Amendment prevents us from punishing people for what they think. If we say anarchist thought has no place in the American marketplace of ideas, we run the risk of objectifying them and turning them into legitimate targets of violence.
Third, the First Amendment does not prevent us from punishing people for the crimes they commit. And that brings us to the rather silly argument about whether James Alex Fields committed an act of terror. What he did was far worse. He committed murder -- for which he should be tried and punished. Bearing the mark of Cain is far more damning than being forced to wear a political label.
Fourth, both Reagan and Clinton would then bring their audiences back to the fact that most Americans are decent people with children who feel sympathy for the family of Heather Heyer. They are not anarchists. They are not white supremacists. They live their lives as best as they can praying that America will not turn into Weimar Germany.
Mr. President, if you could for one moment think along those lines, you will know the right thing to do. You need to stand up in your official capacity and say enough is enough. If people are going to commit violence in espousing their political views, there will be a cost.
But it is far more important that you do something tangible to pull this nation together -- and there is no better moment.
I suggest a Day of Prayer. At the National Cathedral. And because we are to pray for our enemies, all political and social factions should be invited to pray and speak -- to commit themselves to a nation where there is peace in our streets. That means former presidents (all of them). Republican and Democrat leaders. And, yes, even representatives who hold unpopular beliefs but who are committed to espousing them in free debate.
I am an optimist. And one day of prayer is not going to solve the rifts that are splitting the nation at both the extremes and the center. But it may be a start.
I pray that it is.