Yesterday, a gang of Nazis, white nationalists, and “alt-right” hate-mongers and terrorists staged a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. One of the terrorists intentionally drove his car into a group of protesters — I reject the “protester/counter-protester” narrative; Nazis are not protesters, they are terrorists. One of these terrorists murdered a young woman and injured nineteen other protesters.
Many have expressed shock and horror. Many have said some variant of, “This is not America,” or, “This is not who we are!” I am not shocked. This both is and is not America; both is and is not who we are.
I am, and remain, deeply disgusted and horrified. I was sufficiently rattled by this that I couldn’t marshal my thoughts on the matter yesterday. The steady erosion of my faith in America is always painful, but yesterday was a seismic shearing, and it took some time to process. But I was not shocked.
I was not shocked because I have experienced a number of these sudden rifts in my confidence in America as an example of what is good and right in the world. I was shocked when, as a child, I learned what slavery was and why the Civil War was fought, and that our founding fathers were slave-owners. I was shocked when, as a teenager, I learned that the Battle of Wounded Knee I’d learned about in school was a massacre of unarmed civilians, and that our country was founded on genocide. I stopped being shocked by the presence of evil in America after that. I can still be shaken, but no longer surprised.
I am also absolutely filled with rage, which is why I did not trust myself to comment yesterday.
People who say this is not America, this is not who we are, I have an answer you may not want to hear: Yes, this is who we are. Every day we accept this evil in our midst, every day we stand by and do nothing or too little, this is who we are. This is not who we should be. This is not who we want to be. But as long as it exists, it is who we are.
Evil is contagious. I’ve found that relatively few people really understand this: evil exists, and it spreads, and it taints all it touches. The saying attributed to Edmund Burke — “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” — is true, but incomplete. It does not fully recognize the contagious nature of evil. If you are aware of evil and stand by, let it pass, do nothing, you abet evil. To abet evil is to do evil. And just like that, the contagion touches you, affects you. It’s insidious. It doesn’t make you evil outright, but having once turned away, it becomes easier to do so the next time. It becomes easier to accept the evil around you. It becomes easier to say, what can I do? It has always been thus and shall always be thus. Slowly, inexorably, with each turning-away, with each failure to speak up, the evil creeps in and makes its home within you.
This is not hyperbole. This is how Nazi Germany happened. People turned aside, decided it had nothing to do with them, deplored it perhaps but didn’t stand up or speak up. And it crept into their hearts, until they were able to convince themselves it wasn’t that bad. Until they could pretend they didn’t see what they saw all around them. Until they could hide from reality so completely that they expressed, and possibly actually felt, shock and horror when the depth of the evil was revealed. Because when we let the contagion take hold within us, we can’t look at it, can’t recognize it, without suffering a severe blow to our self-image. So much easier just to let it be. Look away.
We’ve been looking away too long. We’ve allowed the evil to grow, to touch us all, to plant its seeds of complacency, of accepting other narratives, of believing false equivalencies. And now we have actual Nazis, no longer hiding behind names like “alt-right,” proudly wearing their swastikas and saluting their new Hitler, Donald Trump, marching openly in our streets. Attacking, murdering those who dare to protest against them. And the guardians we turn to in our need? We have been complacent about the evil growing there for so long that they were no longer our guardians. The police, according to reports I read yesterday, were more concerned with arresting the protesters than the Nazis. The police may well have recognized their own amongst the Nazis. The police looked away.
We can’t look away any longer. This is who we are. This is America. And that needs to change.