Friday, August 18, 2017

Charlottesville: The Criminal, the Moral, and the Constitutional

A lot of ink has been spilled over the tragic events in Charlottesville last weekend. I spent the early part of the week trying to find good summaries and timelines of the events. I found two that were particularly helpful. The first was in the Chronicle of Higher Education, from University of Virginia President Terry Sullivan's perspective. She continues to be on the front lines of many challenges confronting higher education, and I think she's holding up pretty well. The second was in Buzzfeed, in which reporter Blake Montgomery gave his first-person account.

I spent the last few days thinking about my own response and the various responses of others to the events. I think that one problem in the way the nation is articulating its response is that there are (at least) three elements of the events in Charlottesville that need to be distinguished.

The easiest element to identify is the Criminal. The horrific incident, in which a car being driven by James Alex Fields Jr. plowed through a crowd and crashed into other cars, left 1 person dead and 19 others wounded. This incident happened after the rally was declared an unlawful assembly. Fields will be prosecuted as a criminal, for offenses including second-degree murder.

The Moral element is also pretty easy to identify. Many, probably almost all, of the participants in the "Unite the Right" rally draped themselves in the imagery of the Confederacy or the Nazis. I can only imagine how pathetic life would have to be to hide behind symbols of genocide and the regimes that inflicted them. (Kevin Williamson has some ideas at NRO.) To do so in proximity to those who have suffered or lost loved ones to those regimes is a heinous act, for which there is no moral justification.

But here the Constitutional element is relevant. That heinous act of spewing white nationalism, whether through conventional media for speech or in an otherwise peaceful assembly, is protected by the First Amendment. Those who organized the "Unite the Right" rally had the right to do so, and they should not be threatened with or subjected to violence for doing so. This is true despite the fact that their ideology, if they could implement it, would impose violence on others. And those on the Left who seek to deny that right to speak and assemble -- an extreme form of the heckler's veto that is so evident on college campuses today -- should be criticized severely. The same is true of those who, during last year's Presidential campaign, are reported to have perpetrated violence against people attending a political event for the then-candidate Trump. The ACLU was right to file the lawsuit on behalf of the "Unite the Right" organizers who wanted the event at the site of the Robert E. Lee statue. They are also on solid ground to, going forward, refuse to represent such groups if they insist on carrying firearms to such events.

Prosecute the Criminal, Condemn the (IM)Moral, and Uphold the Constitutional.


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