“Nobody told me there’d be days like these.
Strange days indeed.”
At 3:00 A.M. this morning, I couldn’t shut my brain off. I got thinking about all the money and energy being spent in taking down the offensive monuments that litter our country. I had seen a news feature earlier this week about how Italy has come to terms with its checkered past. It hasn’t demolished the Coliseum, where thousands of innocents were slaughtered, or the monuments to the Roman emperors who bathed the country in blood. It hasn’t bulldozed the plazas and buildings and statues that celebrate Il Duce, the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Instead, Italians try to understand their history. I found myself wondering, “What if we had hired the most renown writers in the world—Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners—and had them write plaques to adorn every monument, explaining its context and what we can learn from it?
The truth is, if we try to erase our past—to repress it—the chances are good it will emerge subconsciously and taint the body politic. We are a nation steeped in blood, from the genocide of the indigenous peoples who were here before us, to the centuries of racism ever since. I believe we must accept the darkness within us—not deny it—in order to keep it at bay. Camus tried to tell us decades ago that we are all “culpable murderers.” Each of us is capable of unspeakable crime, but by acknowledging that fact, we can keep ourselves in check. As Kirk famously pointed out in a classic episode of Star Trek, we can decide “I will not kill today.”
It is a daunting task, recognizing the urge to destroy that dwells inside us. We watch toddlers playing with blocks, and we see immediately that they love knocking blocks over even more than they love to build with them. That same inclination has been evident in protests that turn violent (and self-defeating) under the pressure of “mob rule” and anarchy. There is a part of us that likes to destroy, to break things and burn things down, and we must remain vigilant to keep it restrained. There is also that urge to obey a “strong man,” to surrender our ethical and moral decision-making to someone who appears to be forcefully in charge. Hitler persuaded German soldiers to kill six million people. Stalin killed twelve million. Those of us who believe such atrocities are no longer possible in our “enlightened age,” mistake human nature for something it is not, and do so at their peril.
Every political system, every country, every religion, every philosophy is flawed because it has been designed by flawed human beings. This doesn’t mean we must despair. Rather, we must be attentive, forever mindful, forever alert. We must stay on point, on guard, against the personal darkness that would do terrible harm to advance an arrogant self-interest. Yes, we must pass humane laws. Yes, we must pursue equality for everyone in every possible way. But our pursuit of “political correctness” will not save us from the demons within. We cannot “defund the police” because we need them to protect us from ourselves.
I am reminded of the concluding pages of Camus’ insightful book, The Rebel. He says, “We shall choose Ithaca, the faithful land, frugal and audacious thought, lucid action, and the generosity of the man who understands. In the light, the earth remains our first and our last love. Our brothers are breathing under the same sky as we; justice is a living thing. Now is born that strange joy which helps one live and die, and which we shall never again postpone to a later time. On the sorrowing earth it is the unresting thorn, the bitter brew, the harsh wind off the sea, the old and the new dawn.”