Our view: Which path will we take?
“Whenever the vicious portion of (our) population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision stores, throw printing-presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure and with impunity, depend upon it, this government cannot last.”
Abraham Lincoln spoke those words more than two decades before he would become president and guide the nation through perhaps the darkest, bloodiest years in our history. The remark was part of a 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. The complete address was titled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” and in it, Lincoln spoke of the dangers of slavery in the United States during a time that both the pro- and anti-slavery movements were gathering their forces into opposing camps and, in many cases, becoming violent and deadly.
Lincoln’s words were both poignant and prophetic, and now — a little more than a week after violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, left 35 people injured, one person dead and a nation more divided than ever — those words border on terrifying.
Our purpose here is not to belabor the mechanism through which this nightmare descended upon a small, southern city a week ago, nor is it to debate the merits of retaining statues and monuments honoring long-dead Confederate generals, the latter of which, ostensibly, sparked the violence in Charlottesville. Neither is it our intention to bash President Donald Trump for his equivocating response to the event, though we wish he’d taken the opportunity to say — without qualification — that anyone who touts their “Americanism” through membership and participation in neo-Nazi or a white supremacist groups is a liar and a hypocrite and that the misguided ideologies driving such groups have no place in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Our purpose in the wake of these terrible events is to ask: Where is all this going? How does it end? Can the United States of America endure when it is so clearly becoming the antithesis of “united”?
Let us be clear: We condemn Naziism and racism in the strongest possible terms and wish Trump had done the same, perhaps taking a page from the book of our own U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who, in response to the carnage, Tweeted, “My answer will never change on this issue. We must all call evil by its name and never back down from denouncing hate and racism.”
But at least one thing the president said was heartbreakingly true: There was violence on both sides, and while there may have been peaceful protesters in attendance, as well, many of those who converged on Charlottesville last weekend came to town spoiling for a fight. They came carrying clubs, shields, pepper spray and, in some cases, semi-automatic rifles, and you don’t do that if your intention is to peacefully protest.
Predictably, violence broke out; it quickly escalated and culminated when 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. decided it would be a great idea to plow his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, ending the life of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
This is not American. This is not who we are.
Americans are endowed by the Constitution with the right to peaceably assemble and protest that to which they object, and we’ll defend that right to the bitter end. But the key word is “peaceably.” Clubbing down or pepper-spraying those who disagree with us is not peaceable, and driving a car into a crowd of pedestrians and killing someone is murder.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Right here in Steamboat Springs, we’ve seen proof positive that, regardless of how stringently we disagree, we can express that disagreement through non-violent means. We’re reminded of July’s “Everyone’s Voice is Important” protest, organized by Routt County Democrats after they learned Gardner, a Republican, was going to be in Steamboat for a private meeting with area GOP leaders. Those protesters arrived carrying signs rather than clubs, and though Gardner ultimately cancelled the meeting (his office later said the cancellation had nothing to do with the protest) no one was pepper-sprayed, and no one was run down and killed by a car.
So, we’ve proven the point right here at home: We can disagree without beating one another senseless; we can protest without killing our countrymen.
The question is, will we?
In 1838, a 28-year-old lawyer named Abraham Lincoln warned that a nation cannot endure when violent, extremist hooligans are given free rein, and history grimly reminds us how that played out. Perhaps it had to play out the way it did. Perhaps, in the face of the continued enslavement of an entire race, war was inevitable and even justified.
But regardless, the wheel has come back around to us, and we now face a similar situation and a similar choice: Do we take the path to violence and dissolution or the path to peace and reconciliation?
The people of this nation must choose, and for the sake of the union and the sake of ourselves, we hope they choose wisely.
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