It was the photo of the gunman, staring with dead eyes with a cheap replica of the Army of Northern Virginia’s battle flag clinched in his right fist. That’s what brought decades of political agony over a peculiar banner of treason to an abrupt end.
All it required was a racist atrocity at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, S.C., last week, where nine innocent African American men and women were shot down after a prayer meeting.
On Monday, Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, stood in the Capitol and talked about her state, its complicated history, and the Confederate flag that flies over a war memorial nearby.
“The hate-filled murderer who massacred our brothers and sisters in Charleston has a sick and twisted view of the flag,” she said. “In no way does he reflect the people in our state who respect and, in many ways, revere it. Those South Carolinians view the flag as a symbol of respect, integrity and duty. They also see it as a memorial, a way to honor ancestors who came to the service of their state during time of conflict. That is not hate, nor is it racism.”
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Nevertheless, she said, the time had come for the flag to go because it “does not represent the future of our great state.”
As a political matter, the battle flag has no business flying over a state capitol with the imprimatur of the government. The Confederacy fought to preserve chattel slavery. The principle of white supremacy was enshrined in the Confederate constitution.
Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens couldn’t have been more clear. America’s founding principles “rested upon the assumption of the equality of races,” he said. “This was an error.”
“Our new government,” Stephens said, “is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
That – not some phony idea of states’ rights – is what the Stars and Bars represented.
But what followed Haley’s moving address was something else. Other states quickly moved to take down their flags, but for some politicians that wasn’t enough. Perhaps statues of Confederate officials and generals should go away, too. Maybe certain monuments should be sandblasted.
By Tuesday, major retailers such as Wal-Mart and Amazon announced they would no longer sell items featuring the Confederate flag. (More than a few critics noticed that Amazon seemed to have no quarrel with swastikas or Che Guevara.)
Cable news commentators began asking how far this should go. Thomas Jefferson may have authored of the Declaration of Independence, but he also owned slaves. Maybe the Army Corps of Engineers should dynamite the Jefferson Memorial.
By Thursday morning, Apple had pulled all Civil War-related games from its app store. Apple reportedly told developers that their games include “images of the confederate flag used in offensive and mean-spirited ways.”
We live in deeply unserious times.
I realize that history is suddenly out of favor, and we find ourselves inexplicably in the midst of an orgy of iconoclasm, but an appeal to the recent past is in order.
Sixteen years ago, two angry young men walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and perpetrated one of worst school massacres in U.S. history. The Columbine murderers, you may recall, wore dusters – the long coats that cowboys sometimes wear on the range. Some students said the pair were part of the school’s “trench coat mafia” – goths and freaks who set themselves apart with their attire.
As Littleton’s adults struggled to make sense of the senseless, school boards in nearby Denver, Adams and Douglas counties took the obvious step of banning trench coats. Something needed to be done.
It’s hard to know what to think anymore. The Confederate battle flag needed to go a long time ago. But obliterating every vestige of the Confederacy?
That’s a different brand of malice – one that should make us very uncomfortable.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.