• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Saturday's Tragedy

August 2017

The stage was set on Saturday at Charlottesville—the quaint university town that Thomas Jefferson funded, christened, and built minutes away from his Shadwell, Virginia home. Heedless of his prodigality and his mounting debt, Jefferson invested much of his increasingly limited time, his boundless heart, and his dwindling capital into what wouldn’t even be an eponymous thing. Nevertheless, the university, such as it was in its infancy at the time, became quickly Jefferson’s most prized achievement. This comes, of course, as a surprise to most. Jefferson is known less as a founder of academies than as a founder of nations; less as a cultivator of minds than as a creator of the new world. His more recognizable and, in our opinion, estimable achievements include having served as President, Vice President, and emissary; for having been an author, a naturalist, a horticulturalist, and a biblical revisionist; for having served the world and his home, as one of the few contributing Enlightenment thinkers born and raised on the American continent.

Above all else, though, he was completely enamored of and beholden to the school he helped to build. This is conveniently manifest right there on his epitaph at Monticello, which lists—perhaps, as some contend, in order of increasing importance—the following things attributable to only him: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson. Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia”.

With Jefferson’s University of Virginia at its very beating heart, the city of Charlottesville grew to what it is today. It’s an oenophile’s paradise, with its gravid and lush grapes popping every which way along the vineyards and in the temperate clime. It’s a sportsman’s delight, as it stands athwart the bucolic Blue Ridge Mountains and all of its altitude and beauty. Having lived briefly in nearby Luray, Virginia, which is equally mountainous but incommensurately cultured, I can look back with deep and abiding appreciation at Charlottesville’s charm. Although I was little more than a visitant in the lovely city and the equally lovely state, the peaceful memories Charlottesville once aroused in me now feel distant. It feels as if they’ve been captured and are being held until further notice or until my nostalgia can re-discover its strength, distract my sadness, and kick back in. After witnessing that declivity to barbarity during Saturday’s “Unite the Right” campaign, I am left wondering how Thomas Jefferson might have responded.

This declivity, such as it was, actually began in earnest on Friday night. It was then that the gathered white-nationalists, neo-Nazis, and various members of the Alt-Right held a vitriolic vigil. On the university lawn, they held torches and chanted racial epithets like, “you will not replace us”, “you will not destroy us”, “white lives matter”, and “blood and soil”.

Justifiably incited at hearing these Hitlerian lines, counter-protestors from the political center and left met the white-supremacists on Saturday morning. Without any need for further provocations, the resentment and the likelihood of a physical confrontation was quite high. For at least the past decade, although they’ve gone by different names at different times, each side on the left and on the “right” has viewed the other’s perfervid ideology as one that is anathema to an American ideal. The former wants inclusivity, the latter exclusivity. The left wants to succor the ethnically diverse and historically oppressed, while the “right”, or, more appropriately, the Alt-Right, wants to persecute those to whom much has been given at the white man’s expense. Always at loggerheads, these two antipodes of the modern political spectrum were bound to fight.

Early in the day, before the inevitable and violent fracas began, there were rumblings in the Charlottesville streets. This, however, isn’t something wholly abnormal; when groups that are antithetical and hostile toward each other, as are these, quarter themselves in such close proximity, there are bound to be taunts, jeers, and ruffled sensitives. A hardened shell and an iron-clad chin are useful in deflecting the salvos of insults and words, but this type of protection is meant metaphorically. On Saturday, people were literally dressed cap-a-pie, head-to-toe in makeshift body armor, helmets, shields, and clubs. The lot of them looked like ramshackle revolutionaries who’d foraged the last scrapings of a corner garage sale. Atop people’s heads were bicycle, motor cross, and baseball helmets with hockey pads and shin guards. Admittedly, it made for a callow and slapdash appearance, and as such, it was a bit funny. The laughter ended, though, once it became necessary to put the pads to use.

Regrettably, violence ensued. White supremacists hurled bottles, swung batons, and sprayed mace. Counter protestors pointed and enflamed aerosol cans at their opposition, thrust night sticks, and held up physical barriers to impede the neo-Nazis. It looked like a miniature Operation Barbarossa with Brownshirts fighting Reds. Although it was far from being an innocuous letting off of steam, there were no serious injuries incurred during the earliest parts of the brawl. The fighting continued in this way for some time and the roles of aggressor and defender became increasingly ambiguous and frankly irrelevant. Regardless of who started the fight, after its initial round the scene became more intensely combative. It was at this point I expected to see the police intervene, and put an end to the affair. Oddly though, the cops were absent. At least they weren’t conspicuously to be found. Should they have been, the imminent carnage might’ve been obviated and a life preserved and dignity saved.

All of this was transpiring in the early morning. Virginia’s governor, Terry McAuliffe called for a State of Emergency before noon and the state’s National Guard was readied on stand-by orders. Local police officers from neighboring counties were mobilized to assist the non-existent efforts of the Charlottesville police. However, before any of the aforementioned officers could make it into town, the worst of all possible scenarios took place. It happened on a slender rivulet of a road, where counter-protestors and peaceful organizers were tightly assembled. The morning’s fighting had just breathed a sigh of relief, when a black Dodge Challenger barreled into the mass of people at a homicidal velocity of speed. Behind the wheel was James Alex Fields, a murderous, misanthropic twenty-year-old Ohioan and white-nationalist. Stuck without an avenue for escape on this narrow lane, the civilians had no alternative other than to be swallowed on impact by Fields’s car.

It brought to mind nightmarish recollections of the homicidal attacks at Nice, Berlin, London, Stockholm, and Barcelona. This deliberate slamming of cars into pedestrians, ghastly as it is, has always felt like a distinctly European atrocity. Carried out usually by ISIS or jihadist militants, it’s not something with which we’ve had to deal in the states. Hitherto, this mode of killing hasn’t gained a foothold in America, or at least it hadn’t until now. To my knowledge, this is the first time in recent memory that vehicular terrorism has taken place on an American street. And to insinuate this attack was anything less than terroristic would be dishonest. One needed don the turban nor quote the hadith to be a legitimate terrorist.

Fields’s accelerated his vehicle, struck, and then pinned the peaceful standers-by. Upon impact, bodies and clothes were tossed and torn asunder. A woman bounced from his hood and landed on the pavement. Others dove, some successfully and some not, to the sidewalk where they might avoid becoming one of the mangled victims. Those bearing witness knew not how to respond. A few, probably acting upon what’s become a primal instinct, grabbed for their phones and shakily recorded the scene. The footage was surreal. A moment of stillness and disbelief shrouding everything the moment when Fields struck the crowd and stopped his car. Then, just as quickly, he shifted gears and hastened away. The car’s bumper, like a ligament stretched too far, grasped tenuously to his grill. A red basketball shoe spewed from car’s belly, as if an ort unable to be consumed.

When the gruesome scene had settled and the medics had arrived, the extent of Fields’s act was brought to light. One woman, Heather Heyer—a thirty-two-year-old local paralegal—was killed after having been struck by his car. Nineteen others were injured. The identities of those injured haven’t yet been disclosed, but Heyer’s memorial service has already taken place. Her mother, poised and soberly resolved, found the ability to speak at her daughter’s eulogy. Repressing what might have been an understandable and profound sadness, she left all of those in attendance with a resounding and encouraging message. She said that Heather’s death “magnified her” and, in her daughter’s martyrdom, her message wouldn’t perish, but persist.

Unfortunately, the day’s sanguinary events did not stop at Heyer’s death. Later on, early that Saturday evening, two Virginia state police officers crashed their helicopter in a wooded area not far from the day’s earlier carnage. The men, whose professional services were tied intimately to Governor McAuliffe’s transportation and personal detail, were aged forty-eight and forty-one. No cause has yet been attributed to the fatal accident while aviation investigations have only just come underway. Neither officer, H. Jay Cullen nor Berke Bates, sent a distress signal before the helicopter lost control and landed in flames.

Saturday was many things. It was fistic and it turned fatal. It was illiberal and immoral from beginning to end. It was sad but it was real. It was another nadir; another low-point American society seems incapable of avoiding. It was another lesson I didn’t think needed to be learned. To whom should we look for an education? From whom should we take away a message? Jefferson wanted more than anything else and enlightened people to push this country ahead. In this, we’ve failed him.

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