It's not your country and it never was

Thoughts on the violence in Charlottesville

Before I go any further, I want to be as clear as possible about two points:

  1. What happened Saturday in Charlottesville was an act of terrorism.
  2. White-supremacist hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan are not merely part of a reactionary, racist fringe. They are terrorist organizations.

I see no ambiguity, shades of meaning, or "many sides" (as President Trump put it) here. A car was driven into a crowd of people on a narrow street, killing one and injuring nineteen others. This is exactly the same act that Islamic State sponsored in London and Berlin, where trucks were driven into trapped crowds.

“Alt-right" is a dog-whistle neologism, an attempt to rebrand bigotry as a kind of internet meme. I actually agree with President Trump’s assertion, at his press conference Tuesday afternoon, that the name is essentially meaningless. But what they stand for, and the way they attempt to achieve it is nothing new. Look at what we saw Saturday: a column of white men marching at night, carrying torches, Confederate flags, swastikas, and rifles. They were led by David Duke, a former “Imperial Wizard” of the Klan. They chanted we’re taking our country back and blood and soil and you will not replace us (or Jews will not replace us) and made threats to return in greater force, with greater violence.

They call themselves by a new name, and they didn’t wear white hoods, but this was a Klan rally in all the ways that mattered.

The Klan is the Christian equivalent of Islamic State. Both groups work to achieve ideological goals of racial and religious “purity” through violence and fear. Different clothing and contexts, but the same motivations. The same distorted appropriation of religion for hatred. The same cowardice.

Ironically, white supremacists like to argue that foreigners are the greatest security threat America faces, but it’s actually domestic terrorism that has claimed more lives here, as noted by the Washington Post:

While Trump often talks about the threat of foreigners, domestic terrorism and homegrown extremism is a major concern. Of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since Sept. 12, 2001, 73 percent (62) were committed by far-right-wing violent extremist groups, and 27 percent (23) by radical Islamist violent extremists, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The fact remains that immigrants not only built this country and most of our culture, but they are also less likely to commit a crime, tend to be more educated than their native-born neighbors, and are generally likelier to be better-informed, more conscientious citizens. The greatest danger we face is not our openness, but the people who want to close us off by any means necessary.

Saturday's attack made me feel heartbroken and furious and sickened. But what really, finally destroyed me was how appallingly familiar it all seemed. I grew up on a stretch of farmland in the Shenandoah Valley about a half-hour West of Charlottesville. When I was younger, my parents would frequently drive us across the ridge to eat out or wander through the bookstores. It was a kind of Sunday-afternoon ritual for us. Later, when I was in high school, I'd go there Saturday nights with friends to see local bands play. The kinds of music we could find there didn't show up on the radio in my hometown; it was a chance to hear something new and interesting and different. I'd drag myself home at two in the morning, drenched in sweat and reeking of cigarette smoke, utterly delighted by the adventure I'd just had.

I have so many good memories from that town, and seeing images of Klan-inspired violence on those same streets makes me feel a new kind of despair I can't quite articulate.

And yet, like I said, it's as familiar as it is surreal. Watching the news footage over and over again, I found myself examining the faces of the marchers. The first thing you look at, of course, are the Confederate flags and the protest signs and the torches. But if you can block those things out for a moment, you're left with a bunch of guys in polo shirts and khakis, looking more or less like the preppy UVA kids you see everywhere in Charlottesville on any given day. I know that many, if not most, of the marchers traveled from out of state, but still... it felt a bit like those innocuous dudes had traded their lattes and Wall Street Journals for Confederate flags and formed a procession. It felt like the town I remembered had gone mad.

Virginia nowadays has become a swing state, its electoral map turning purple, but the small valley town I grew up in was (and is) a world away, culturally, from the D.C. suburbs engulfing Northern Virginia. It was -- and still is -- rural and Southern and, generally, socially traditional and politically conservative. At its best, that meant we valued character over charisma, the proven over the theoretical, and the value of moderation. At its worst, that meant willful — and motivated — ignorance of our past. I grew up with the Confederate flag more or less always in my peripheral vision, and discussions about "heritage" lingering as proxies for more substantive discussions about our legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation.

In that way, this weekend was just another illustration of how we’ll never heal until we can see the darkest parts of our history for what they really were.