Meanwhile, back in Belfast …

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The photo above began making the rounds on social media this afternoon. You can read about it here.

As a Belfast friend of mine remarked earlier today: “So. Tell me again about how the peace process has really moved our society along.”

Confederate flag update: Hypocrisy watch

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The flag still has its defenders. (USA Today photo)

By a vote of 37-3, South Carolina state senators voted this afternoon to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state house. The measure moves next to the state House of Representatives, where it must also pass by a two-thirds majority before Republican Gov. Nikki Haley can follow through on her promise to take the flag down.

Despite the lopsided vote, there were still some interesting moments from the Senate debate, courtesy of Sen. Lee Bright. While others have pointed out how the good state senator used the opportunity to launch into an anti-gay marriage rant, another of his remarks caught my attention.

Bright argued that calls for the removal of the flag were being driven by an emotional reaction to the misuse of the flag by accused white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof, who had posted online photos of himself wrapped in the Stars and Bars before slaughtering nine black churchgoers in Charleston last month.  Said Bright:

I’m more against talking it down in this environment than any other time just because I believe we’re placing the blame of what one deranged lunatic did on the people that hold their Southern heritage high.

I wonder if the senator is just as careful not to blame an entire people for the acts of a few when the terrorism is carried out by those who claim to be Muslim.  Somehow I doubt it.

 

This is what terrorism in America really looks like

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Briar Creek Road Baptist Church burns in Charlotte, N.C., in the predawn hours of June 24.

 

Black churches are burning again.

If you want to know what terrorism in America actually looks like you need cast your gaze no further than the charred ruins of the half dozen predominantly African-American churches that went up in flames in the week following the mass killing at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

While our popular imagination conjures up images of self-radicalized ISIS wannabes around every street corner, historically American terrorism is more likely to look like the image above than it is black-clad militants marching behind jihadi banners.

While an ATF investigation has so far found no evidence that these six fires are either related to each other or even racially motivated, such has not always been the case. In the 1960s and again in the 1990s, waves of arson and bombings targeted black churches across the South. It is the memory of those attacks, and the fact that they come on the heels of Charleston, that has led to the fear that the recent spate of burnings represented a resumption of white supremacist terrorism.

These incidents are a reminder that, with a few notable exceptions, and a single extraordinary one on Sept. 11, 2001, the story of terrorism in the United States has long been one of Americans using violence against Americans in support of causes or in the pursuit of goals that are embraced by yet other Americans. From New Left revolution, anti-war, and black liberation struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, to anti-abortion fervor and radical environmentalism in the 1980s and 1990s, and racial hatred throughout, American terrorism typically has been truly all-American.

This ought not surprise us.* Public opinion surveys conducted in 1981, in 1995, and in 2000 found that Americans, while unreservedly condemning terrorists as a category, were unwilling to reject the use of violence as a tool of political change. In the 1981 study, 15 percent of those surveyed said there were circumstances when terrorism could be justified. That percentage stood at 17 percent in the 1995 study and rose as high as 26 percent in 2000.

What the above signals is that there are likely mitigating qualities that some Americans see in terrorism and terrorist actions that allows them on the one hand to categorically abhor terrorism and terrorists yet simultaneously claim that terrorism may be justifiable. Even after 9/11 public opinion surveys provide evidence that suggests that meaningful percentages of  Americans continue to hold sympathetic attitudes toward some terrorist organizations.

Here is one astonishing example of Americans’ attitudes about terrorism that is worth thinking about.  Six months after Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 and wounding another 800, the public was asked whether they had a positive, neutral, or negative attitude toward McVeigh. A startling 5 percent of respondents said they had a very positive or somewhat positive view of McVeigh, while 12 percent reported that they had neutral feelings about the individual who was responsible for carrying out what was at the time the single deadliest act of terrorism ever on American soil.

We need to remember, as we approach the Fourth of July holiday, that the face of American terrorism looks a lot more like Timothy McVeigh and Dylan Roof than Osama bin Laden or Mohamed Atta.

*I wrote and presented a paper on this at a conference in 2009 at the University of Missouri. The piece is unpublished, and desperately in need of updating, but you can download and read a copy here.

Context is everything

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I wrote the other day about the Confederate flag and the renewed controversy over that symbol in the wake of the mass killing by a white supremacist terrorist in Charleston, S.C. I want to revisit the topic briefly to try to make a few points more clear.

I accept the argument that the Confederate flag is a hate symbol, but I want to continue to argue that it is more than just that, and like any other symbol, context is key to our understanding of its meaning. So let me present two visual examples to try to make the point.

The picture at the top of the post is from the Confederate cemetery in Marietta, GA. In this context, marking the grave of a soldier killed in the war, I struggle to read the flag as a hate symbol. I see it here as a recognition of an individual’s sacrifice in a long, brutal struggle, even if we cannot today know the motivation for which he fought and ultimately died. We cannot know whether he was an eager volunteer or an unwilling conscript. All that we can know is that he was one more victim of a war which has defined the American experience in ways positive and negative.

In this context, the flag represents history and memory, not hate. It should continue to fly in such a setting. I see this as akin to and consistent with President Obama’s perfectly reasonable admonition that the Confederate flag belongs in a museum.

The second example, below, is by now a familiar one. It is the Confederate flag flying on the lawn of the South Carolina statehouse, and while all the other flags were lowered to half staff to honor those slain at Emmanuel AME church, by state law this one can never be.

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In this context, the symbolism of the Confederate flag is painfully, obviously clear. It is a statement of defiance against racial equality and forced desegregation, and of longing for a past in which one group of humans could legally own another group of human beings. As this excellent article from the The Atlantic makes absolutely unmistakeable, in this context the Confederate flag is a symbol of proud, unabashed racial hatred, bigotry, and white supremacy.

The Confederate flag has no business flying over the offices of any level of government in any state, especially in South Carolina, and especially today. And so I join the voices of those who call for it to come down.

But let it remain where it today belongs. In cemeteries, at war memorials, historic battlefields, and yes, museums. It needs to continue to fly in such contexts to remind us of how far we have come as a people, and how far we still have to go.