‘We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” the late Elie Wiesel, a prominent Holocaust survivor, journalist and Nobel Laureate warned during his pilgrimage sharing the horrors of the Holocaust, one of the greatest evils unleashed in human history under Nazi Germany.
According to the teachings of Wiesel, President Donald Trump should have taken sides against the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and white supremacists at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who last weekend were protesting the removal of the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, a staunch supporter of slavery.
Because these groups advocate racial superiority — the guiding philosophy behind slavery, the institution that subjugated and forced blacks into bondage for centuries in this nation, and the carnage of the Holocaust where six million Jews were slaughtered — history beckons Trump to rise up, condemn these groups in the most forceful way and use the bully pulpit of the White House to delegitimize their efforts.
That is what is expected of the president of the United States, a position that once commanded significant moral leadership.
This is about good and evil, Mr. President. The chants of “blood and soil,” a Nazi slogan, and the burning torches, harkening the horrors of slavery that were a highlight of the weekend demonstrations should prick the conscience of anyone, especially the president to action. Those chants can best be described as what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. calls words of “interposition” and “nullification.”
This is no time to sit on the fence by blaming “many sides” or “both sides” as Trump repeated in his latest remarks on Tuesday about the demonstrations, where 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. is accused of ramming his Dodge Challenger vehicle into the crowd, leaving 32-year-old Heather Heyer dead and several others injured.
Heyer did not die in vain because she will be remembered as a martyr in a movement to liberate this era from the vile clutches of racism and anti-Semitism.
Instead of seizing this mournful moment to demonstrate presidential grace, dignity and authority as occupant of the most powerful political office in the world, Trump resorted to impulsive and combative reactions to what happened in Virginia. In the days since the violence erupted, he has gone from initially blaming all sides, condemning the hate groups by specifically calling out their names to blaming both sides for what happened. He went on to draw a dangerous and false equivalence between the neo-Nazis and those who came out to rally against them.
The response from Trump should have been, “There are no two sides to this issue. We condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazi sympathizers who showed up in Virginia to create trouble in the strongest terms. This ideology has no place in our democracy. As president, I will not tolerate those who want to use hatred to intimidate and seek to dehumanize others. Our values are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that all are created equal.”
Trump failed a moral test by not backing the counter-protesters — the people like Heyer who came out to demand racial equality by marching against the neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Trump should have paid a special tribute to Heyer, who sacrificed her life in a protest about good and evil, and should have reached out to her family.
Wiesel, a witness to one of history’s darkest moments, would have supported the counter-protesters for expressing righteous indignation against the drivers of hate machines. He would have stood with Heyer, whose last Facebook post challenging white supremacy said: “If you’re not outraged, you are not paying attention.”
The need for us to pay attention, to be outraged and to speak out against evil was the hallmark of Wiesel’s teachings. In one of his reflections, he said: “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
The history of slavery, America’s original sin, and the carnage of the Holocaust and its scourge on humanity should summon our conscience to take a stand against forces that want to inflict harm by invoking the painful memories of our shameful past and attacking those who dare to call them out.
When Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, walked into a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015 during Bible studies and killed nine parishioners including the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, then-President Barack Obama in his eulogy put the massacre in historical context.
“A sacred place, this church, not just for blacks, not just for Christians but for every American who cares about the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country, a foundation stone for liberty and justice for all,” Obama said. “We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history, but he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act.”
Obama added, “It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress, an act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion, an act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.”
Such history is the reason we cannot keep silent about activities that promote bigotry. We must take a side now to save what is left of this republic. Failure to do so means condoning and accommodating intolerant and oppressive behaviors that belong to the dustbin of history.
The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.