In one, horrible way there really was no difference between those on the Right and those on the Left who sought to provoke violence in Charlottesville: Their consciences were clear, and they believed that violence was justified…

Conflict comes in all sizes and flavors. Some are huge like wars between countries and some are very small, like fights on the playground. There are conflicts within families and between different families and certainly among friends and lovers. Some conflicts are quickly forgotten and others fester for generations. But all conflicts are the same in the two myths that both sides invariably employ to justify themselves and prove the rightness of their cause.

The first myth, more often asserted by those on both extremes of the political spectrum, is that the conflict is a struggle of absolute good against absolute evil. Or, at least, that the evil on one side is so enormous and egregious that it justifies any actions taken by the other side in the conflict. In their minds, the conflict is black and white, and there is no room for nuance or any allowance for shades of gray, as this would be a betrayal of their cause. Most countries have used this myth to great effect at one time or another. For example, because our enemies in World War II were so loathsome and so utterly devoid of any redeeming characteristics, some of the tactics we employed—such as the firebombing of Dresden and other civilian population centers—were rendered far more palatable and excusable. When the enemy is seen as implacably evil, it becomes far easier to inflict evil upon them; one-dimensional enemies give us a free pass to inflict unrestrained violence upon them.

But the second myth is no better and perhaps even more dangerous because it appears to be more even-handed and fair: that both sides are equally to blame. What today we usually term moral equivalence. If there is one thing more absurd than the notion that one side is ever completely to blame for a conflict, it is the sillier notion that blame can ever be equally apportioned. We see this every day as we go about our lives and come into conflict with others. Sometimes we are more to blame and sometimes less, but it is truly a rare thing when culpability is a 50-50 proposition. To use another World War II example, it is stunning when people suggest that the Internment Camps for Japanese-Americans were as bad as the Nazi Concentration Camps and therefore we have no moral standing to condemn the latter.

So, we come to the current controversy surrounding the tragic altercations in Charlottesville. Much of the mainstream media is outraged at President Trump’s comments, insisting that he has placed the KKK and neo-Nazi groups on the same moral plane as those groups that opposed them. And in fairness to the media, President Trump’s initial statement fell far short of what needed to be said about white supremacist groups. On the second day, of course, he did come out with a clear and unequivocal statement condemning those right-wing extremist groups, but by then it was too late to assuage the fury of his critics. Then on the third day, as if to further exacerbate the situation, he seemed to retreat to his earlier statement, again condemning both sides for the violence.

As in all of life, timing is crucial in politics. Weave together President Trump’s three statements, place his strong condemnation of the neo-Nazis and the KKK first, and follow it with his expression of sorrow for the dead and injured, and then end with his criticism of all those, on both sides who provoked violence, and the vast majority of Americans would have supported him. Most Americans have nothing but scorn for racist groups like the KKK, but most Americans also have a loathing for any group, regardless of where they fall along the political spectrum and no matter how aggrieved they feel, who provoke violence. Many will rightly argue that BLM (Black Lives Matter) cannot fairly be equated with the KKK. They will reasonably argue that the violence generated by certain individuals within the BLM movement, while deplorable, pales in comparison to the violence and hatred perpetuated by the KKK and other white supremacist groups. But BLM, nonetheless, needs to be called out for those within its organization who are themselves racist and agitate for violence. And in one way at least, although many will disagree with what I say, those on the so-called alt-left who advocate violence are exactly like the KKK—the lives of innocent people are merely fodder to fuel their ultimate objective. This ruthless willingness to exploit innocents to further their cause is a quality all extremists share.

I reached this conclusion not this week, but way back in 1971. In that year I was a young, idealistic university student, and also in that year there was an uprising of prisoners at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York. Negotiation was tried and failed, and an exasperated Governor Rockefeller finally approved an attack. All told, 43 men lost their lives. The killings shocked most of the world, and being easily outraged in those days, I traveled up to New York City to join a demonstration against what I saw as the reckless government slaughter of the inmates and hostages. The atmosphere was tense. The demonstrators grew in number, and their restlessness also increased as the minutes ticked by. A friend and I engaged some of the police in pleasant conversation, with several of them reassuring us that we shouldn’t worry—that they had orders to be careful and not harm any of the demonstrators. I had one particularly delightful conversation with one police officer who confided to me how wearing that blue uniform really helped him get dates. We laughed together and shared stories of all sorts. But every 20 minutes or so, the line of police at the barricades would rotate—it is always easier to bash the heads of the faceless and nameless, rather than someone with whom you had just been discussing dating rituals.

At the same time, some self-proclaimed Maoists in the crowd started to chant, “Kill the Pigs, Kill the Pigs” and called on the demonstrators to charge the barricade. Some demonstrators took up the call and started to push up against the barricades. I was appalled—and scared. I got into an argument with a passionate young Maoist about the tactics she was advocating, but she dismissed me for my naiveté. She explained that provoking the police was necessary to ignite the “revolution” America needed. Quoting her idol, Mao, she called on all of us to join her. If the police could be provoked into spilling some innocent blood, it was well worth it in her calculus. I angrily told her that most of the people here had come to peacefully protest the Attica killings, but she just shook her head condescendingly, turned away, and went back to urging the demonstrators to attack. I went back to the Rutgers campus later that night and wondered how anyone could be so committed to any cause that she could think spilling innocent blood justifiable.

In this one, horrible way there really was no difference between those on the Right and those on the Left who sought to provoke violence in Charlottesville: Their consciences were clear, and they believed that violence was justified. So yes, the beliefs and the history of the KKK and the neo-Nazis are far more deplorable than the beliefs and history of BLM members and others who also resorted to violence in Charlottesville, but their similar disregard for life and law makes them members of the same brotherhood of killers. That brotherhood was best explained by a former high-level Nazi after the war. During his interrogation, he was asked which political groups were the greatest threat to the Nazi regime. He laughed and said for propaganda purposes that the Nazis always attacked the Communists, but that it was really those who advocated for democracy that were the real threat. The Communists, he explained, in a psychological sense, were really no different from the Nazis; they were true believers, they knew they were absolutely right, and they were completely willing to sacrifice their lives and the lives of others for a greater cause. He confided that the moderates were the true threat because they could never be moved very far in either direction, whereas a left-wing fanatic could easily be turned into a right-wing fanatic—they already had the right fascist state of mind. That perhaps is the final sad irony of Charlottesville that the media refuses to see: Some within the antifa movement are fascist too.

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The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility.

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