For much of human history, force and violence represented the established tools of governance, allowing weak-minded individuals to impose their will and beliefs onto others. Then at a pivotal moment in history, a Virginian from Charlottesville helped pen a document that spoke to the God-given right of all men to individual liberty. Following his work on the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson contributed to the Virginia statute on religious liberty, outlining man’s right to freely worship as his conscience dictated and freeing him from compulsory adherence to an official state religion. Considering these two works alone, it is not surprising that Jefferson declared in a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
In spite of this small city’s tremendous contribution to the furtherance of individual freedom, force and violence prevailed in Charlottesville this past weekend as protestors and counter-protesters clashed. And in a horrendous climax, a young man murderously drove his vehicle into a group of counter-protestors in a manner all too reminiscent of the recent Islamic terrorist attacks in France and Britain.
As the Founding Fathers knew all too well, sometimes freedom provides an open forum for the expression of the most extreme and repugnant beliefs present in society. Yet, it is in these moments that our commitment to freedom is both tested and demonstrated. A peaceful response to violence and force runs contrary to human nature. Humans are hardwired to respond to force with force: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But Martin Luther King, Jr. admonished us all with the declaration that, “hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe.” Dr. King also showed us the way forward by stating, “The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil…Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.” Just like Dr. King, I believe our society and its citizens are strong enough to endure and overcome the displays of bigots and racists with respect and love.
While we are a society that respects individual freedom, we are also a society of rules and laws. And where freedom crosses over into criminal behavior, our society cannot tolerate it. Violent acts of aggression should never be accepted as a means to advance any position in a free society. In this particular situation, the young man responsible for the death of Heather Heyer and for the injuries to nineteen other individuals should be held accountable to the fullest extent permissible under our laws and judicial process.
I stand with those denouncing the violence of the weekend’s events and with those denouncing ideologies that run contrary to the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal.” These events remind us that every American must remain opposed to the tyrannical forces of violence and racism, which are patently inconsistent with our values and principles. And ultimately, we must continue to hold dear to Dr. King’s hope, “that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all of their scintillating beauty.”