THESE are not normal times in America. For days in recent weeks, thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets and parks to denounce white supremacy and Nazism. In Charlottesville, a small city of less than 50,000 people in the state of Virginia, the bestiality of racism and Nazism was on display.
August 12 was the day of turmoil that struck at the heart of America’s law and justice. It was also a day that showed a glaring failure of moral leadership in the Donald Trump presidency.
It all began when far-right groups with racist ideologies gathered at Charlottesville under the banner “Unite the Right” rally, to protest the decision of the local city to bring down the statue of Confederate, Gen. Robert E. Lee. Among the demonstrators were white supremacist activist, Richard Spencer, and former leader of Ku Klux Klan, David Duke. The rally attracted a peaceful counter-protest in the city.
Gen. Lee, it will be recalled, came from one of the wealthiest slave-holding families in Virginia and went on to fight on the side of the South during the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865. After his death, his statue was erected in Charlottesville in 1924 as part of the “lost cause” narrative. It was an idea that, though the South had known it was going to lose the war, it continued to fight on “principle”. During the demonstrations, a 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when a car driven by a far-right member, 20-year-old James Alex Fields, ploughed into a crowd. Though the dead has been buried and her killer charged with “second degree murder and three counts of malicious wounding”, undoubtedly, when such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray the core values that the society cherishes. And, that cannot be tolerated under any guise.
The rate at which America is sliding into racism is disturbing, especially since the emergence of Trump as its 45th President. Embers of racism and hatred are being stoked, and life for many, has become unsafe. Trump’s speech immediately after the violence attracted criticism for not being strong enough in condemning the perpetrators of the violence. He had toned down his initial comments that were unsparing of bigotry and hatred, and later launched an angry defence of the alt-right, claiming that “both sides” were to blame in the attacks.
Expectedly, global condemnation has continued to trail the violence and Trump’s comments in particular. There is a level of respect that comes with the office that a President holds. It is left to Americans to say if their President has passed that test.
Nonetheless, we share the worries of concerned Americans and the global community. The violence that sparked outrage across the world has an unforgettable message: that racism and hate speeches cannot be accepted in decent societies and those who fan such embers stand condemned. This is because such behaviour, if left unchecked, emboldens bigots and racists.
There must be a swift restoration of law and order in America and the protection of lives. No citizen should be afraid for his safety and security. These are the ideals America was noted for. Maybe, no longer. In times such as these, leadership matters. As many politicians and the media have said, this is no time to sit on the fence, equivocate or be silent.
More importantly, this is the time for the members of the President’s party, the Republican Party, to call their man to order and ensure he remains there. They must summon their reserves of political courage and tame his narcissistic instincts that are making America lose respectability in the international community. Or else, what happened in Charlottesville could be an unravelling of America’s national fabric and a descent into anarchy. The recent exit of notable financial and corporate leaders from two of President Trump’s advisory boards, and five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicate that neutrality and silence are no options in the face of clear and present danger to America’s globally admired values. Sowing racial strife in a nation in desperate need of a unifying vision is something any country that desires progress can ill afford. Only good leadership can offer that priceless prize.
What lesson does this teach us? Pretty much. It is time for those in authority to take action. The truth is that, in times of crisis, nations and citizens look up to their leaders to summon the moral authority required to heal wounds. That, exactly is what America needs now in the aftermath of the horrible incident in Charlottesville, Virginia.