My 92-year-old father called in the evening. He learned of events in Charlottesville, Virginia, from watching MSNBC. He likes “that Rachel girl,” though he can’t understand why Trump hasn’t been indicted and hasn’t gotten us into a war yet, as she keep saying is about to happen any moment.
He fought in the infantry in World War II. He was with the 86th Infantry, known as the Blackhawk division. He received two Purple Hearts, among other things, for his efforts. His greatest fear is that there will be another war, and more young people will die, because he knows that afterward life goes on and they’re still dead.
He also knows who the Nazis were. Unlike people who read about it from books, he was there when concentration camps were liberated. He knows what the disease looks like, smells like, feels like. He was ready to die to stop the Nazis, and took bullets to prove it.
He asked me why? Then he told me why. “It’s like they want a war.”
The alt-right had been preparing for their march in Charlottesville for some time. It’s putative purpose was to protest the removal of a confederate statue, but that was merely the rallying point. It’s real purpose was to show they were to be taken seriously. They were real. They had enough power to cause the country to take notice of them, to fear them, to acknowledge their existence.
They wanted our attention. They got it.
Scanning reports, there is little information about how many alt-right marchers turned out. The reference is generally “hundreds.” Maybe two hundred? Three? In a nation of more than 300 million people, the flaming Pepe Boys eked out a few hundred of the master race.
And a few hundred nutjobs seized a nation’s attention. Front page of every newspaper. A mayor, governor and miscellaneous other politicians spoke out against the white supremacists. A president couldn’t bring himself to do so, proving for the hundredth time that he is the venal fool we deserve.
Then some 20-year-old kid, James Alex Fields Jr of Ohio, from the nutjob team plowed his car into a group of “counter-protesters” described as “jubilant” about routing the alt-right from a mall. Heather Heyer was killed. Many others injured. Afterward, the circular justification took flight, as a march that could have been a joke ended with a human life lost, other lives changed forever in pain.
How is it possible that a group of a few hundred outlier misfits captured the attention of a nation? The voices of reason on the twitters were stumbling over each other to prove their virtue, as if it had to be said that they abhorred white supremacists. The unduly emotional were shrieking that this was the Fourth Reich. The panderers were capitalizing on their marketing opportunity.
No, this wasn’t like the cops, a pervasive force in our society. No, this wasn’t about Trump, incompetent though he may be, empowering his special flavor of nutjob to go public with their tiki torches. This was about a nation that has lost perspective, willingly forfeiting its attention to a few hundred nutjobs who are so insignificant as to be worthy of no more than ridicule.
Yesterday, this was a joke. Today, this is real enough to bury a woman. This death, the injured, don’t prove that these alt-right nutjobs should be taken seriously. They are no more worthy of attention than any group of nutjobs who are so insignificant that they fail to make a blip on the radar of serious people.
What’s changed this from a meme to front page news is the reaction to these few hundred alt-right crazies. They only matter if we want them to matter. They can’t seize our attention. Only we can give it to them. And that’s all they really want is to matter, to own our attention.
In a better world, this would be the time when mature and thoughtful voices would calm us down, bring us back to earth by reminding us that these nutjobs are unworthy of our attention. We have real problems. We always do, of course, but these are exacerbated by the gaping hole in governance between right and left, leaving the 80% in the middle voiceless as the sides throw spitballs at each other. There is no one to fill that niche.
The president lacks the grasp to do it, and even if someone explained it to him in small words, he could be called out as a fraud and hypocrite. To criticize his pathetic response is convenient, as even a totally sound response would be rejected as a lie.
And there is no one with the broad acceptance as a voice of reason who could bring a nation back from the brink of hysteria. All over a few hundred worthless nutjobs.
“They need someone to blame,” my father said. He wasn’t talking about the alt-right, but about the furious left. At 92, he saw the dynamic at work. He knew these white supremacists, these neo-Nazis, weren’t to be taken seriously. Yet they were. He saw that these were convenient targets for people in search of proof that they were right, that everything was “literally Hitler.”
They want a war, and what they needed was an enemy. But in war, people die, people are hurt. It’s a terrible thing to want. Nobody will hear the words of an old man over all the shrieking.
Pop knows what it’s like to watch his comrades die on the field of battle. He knows how it feels when a bullet enters your body. If war comes to you, you must fight, but never look for a war that doesn’t need to be fought.