Editorial: The Philosophy of Hatred

Five years ago, a mob of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and elements of the so-called “alt-right” ransacked Charlottesville and violently clashed with counter-protesters, a terrifying demonstration that made a woman dead, dozens injured and the nation in shock.

For many Americans, it was the first time they had witnessed the terror that an energetic, organized, and emboldened far right could unleash. And though this movement is less visible today, it continues to recruit vulnerable, disgruntled and misguided people to its dastardly cause.

As the nation remembers the events of Charlottesville, this moment should serve as a powerful reminder that white nationalist extremism persists, despite our efforts to eradicate it, and that we must be vigilant in defending ourselves against its insidious influence.

What happened five years ago was a failure in every sense of the word. There was plenty of evidence long before the ‘Unite the Right’ rally that it would attract some of the most despicable and dangerous people to Charlottesville, eager to show their faces to the world.

This introduction — a torchlight parade on the University of Virginia campus — was meant to echo the Nazi rallies depicted in Leni Riefenstahl’s films. And the songs—“Blood and Soil” and “The Jews Shall Not Replace Us, among others—served to indicate who these people were and what they set out to accomplish.

It was a prelude to the violent horror a day later, when violence preceded a planned rally to preserve a statue of Robert E. Lee, then spread through several city blocks. Clashes between white nationalists and counter-protesters raged for hours as, an after-action review would conclude, law enforcement did little to intervene.

Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and civil rights activist, was killed when James Alex Fields, 20, deliberately drove his car into a crowd, injuring 35 other people. Fields was convicted of first degree murder in 2018 and sentenced to life in prison.

How did Fields – born in Kentucky, living in Ohio – end up in Charlottesville as part of a white supremacist group? How did one of the people waving Nazi flags, carrying torches and shouting racial slurs come to take this view? What twisted Fields so badly that he deliberately drove his car into a crowd of people that day?

So many questions that should haunt this country. Not that they are new, of course. White supremacy was once enshrined in the US Constitution, codified in law, and widely practiced across the country, ebbing through the lifetimes of people reading this today.

And there are still those who seek to reinvigorate this twisted philosophy, arguing that policies such as racial integration and tolerance and even equity programs are destroying the country. Sure, they use different words and don’t wear the Ku Klux Klan hoods they once wore, but it’s easy to recognize a dog whistle when you hear one.

In Charlottesville five years ago, the masks had fallen. The faces full of rage were clearly visible. They were waving Nazi flags, they were giving Nazi salutes, they were wearing Nazi armbands.

It’s less clear when they lurk in the dark corners of the internet, seeking out disillusioned and socially alienated young people. For these potential recruits, racial equality is presented as the problem and white supremacy as the solution. The violence and terror they spread is the way to achieve this.

It was what prompted a gunman in Charleston to kill nine black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church two years before Charlottesville, and what prompted the shooter who opened fire on a Buffalo supermarket at the start of this year, killing 10 blacks.

Americans should be more alert to signs of trouble and have acquired an ear for the language of white supremacy. And there is reason to hope that more Americans will report the potential for violence when they learn of it.

But to neutralize corrosive philosophy before it corrupts impressionable minds? It’s a big challenge. This anniversary reminds us that we must continue efforts to confront white nationalism and other forms of extremism with vigilance and determination.

—Virginian-Pilot Editorial Board

About Leslie Schwartz

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