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Reacting to the horror in Charlottesville

statue of Robert E. Lee atop a horse
Public Domain
Violent protests erupted Saturday, Aug. 12 when white nationalists went to Charlottesville, Va. to protest the city's plan to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

Seventy-two years ago today, for the first time ever, the Emperor of Japan spoke to his subjects on nationwide radio.  “Circumstances in the world conflict have proceeded in a manner not necessarily to our advantage,” he said. 

That was perhaps the greatest example of euphemism and circumlocution in history. What the emperor was really saying was “we have lost World War II, and we have no choice except to surrender.” I thought of this in the aftermath of the terrible events in Virginia, where a messed-up character obsessed with Nazis apparently drove his car into a group of people, killing one young woman and injuring many more people.

Our response to events like this has now become as ritualized as classical Japanese drama.  We have a partly genuine, partly manufactured show of sorrow and outrage.

Reporters investigate the alleged killer.  Compassionate stories are written about the victims. Politicians are expected to issue some social media statement condemning the violence. President Trump was harshly criticized for not doing so strongly enough.

If you look on Michigan Radio’s website, you can view a list of who has tweeted what about this, and learn that as of this morning, one congressman hadn’t sent any tweets at all since August 3rd. I had a sneaking sympathy for that. I may be a dinosaur, but think about this:

Do all of us have to tweet on every single thing every day? Do we really need politicians who have no connection whatsoever to Virginia, to tell us they are opposed to hate crimes?

Well, evidently we do, which is a fairly damning indictment. I can understand the need for the President to do so, especially this president.

Had this event occurred while President Obama was still in office, he would have condemned it in words that I can easily imagine. Those words would have been heard and speedily forgotten, because everyone took it for granted that he would condemn it.

The fact that no one was certain what this President would say is pretty significant.

That alone ought to make us think where we are as a nation, almost half a century after the murder of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who based his entire life on non-violence.

Probably the best thing any politician ever said about something like this was Bobby Kennedy’s impromptu speech in an Indianapolis ghetto the night King was assassinated.

He told the crowd, “You can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country…or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.”

If you have never watched that speech, you should –it’s barely five minutes long. It says what needs saying about all this better than anything anyone will tweet today, maybe ever.

Kennedy was himself killed exactly two months later, by another troubled and unhappy young man. That wouldn’t have greatly surprised him. But he asked people when King died to dedicate themselves to, “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

In the half a century since, I haven’t heard a better idea.  

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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