The rise and fall of Silent Sam
Politicians tell people what they want to hear. Leaders tell people what they need to hear, even if they don’t want to listen.
I don’t envy the challenge faced by Gov. Roy Cooper and other officials who favor removing the University of North Carolina’s “Silent Sam” memorial and other Confederate monuments from the public square to less-traveled locations such as cemeteries, battlefields, museums, or storage. They have some reasonable arguments for their position.
But this is no longer about the proper remembrance and interpretation of the Civil War, the historical context of monument placement during the early 20th century, or what the symbols mean to North Carolinians today. Those are matters for public debate, for legislative deliberation, for editorials and speeches intended to change either the minds or the identities of the relevant public officials. Let’s collectively label such options Plan A.
For those who contend that Silent Sam and similar objects on campuses form a hostile education environment and thus contravene federal law, the proper place to present that case is a court of law. That’s Plan B.
For those who feel strongly enough to take direct action, there is also Plan C: civil disobedience. You publicly break a law you believe to be unjust, prepared to accept the consequences and by doing so advance your cause. Civil disobedience affirms rather than weakens the rule of law, as long as your acts do not threaten the lives, liberty, or property of others. In this case, protestors could have, say, formed a human wall around Silent Sam and refused to move without being arrested.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. famously put it, “any man who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail in order to arouse the conscience of the community on the injustice of the law is at that moment expressing the very highest respect for law.”
These are the only alternatives available to individuals with strong opinions who must live in a free society with other individuals who possess strongly divergent opinions. There is no Plan D.
The Silent Sam protestors contend that reasoned discourse was taking too long, that they had not yet achieved their objective and were thus justified in assembling as a mob, throwing smoke bombs, and yanking the statue down. But impatience is not a vote-multiplier. Outrage is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Many North Carolinians are impatient or outraged about other causes. Anti-abortion activists, for example, aren’t just upset about alleged hate speech. They believe unborn children are being killed and that some perpetrators are indirectly subsidized by tax dollars in the form of grants for “family planning” or “women’s health.” Should pro-life activists take the law into their own hands by obstructing, defacing, or destroying abortion clinics? Should North Carolinians with a strong dislike for other historical figures depicted in statues, nameplates, and artworks on public property be free to break or remove them?
After Silent Sam was toppled, Gov. Cooper said the right thing, that “violent destruction of public property has no place in our communities.” University leaders condemned “mob rule” and observed that the perpetrators had threatened public safety — not being masonry contractors or demolition experts, the perpetrators lacked not just the authority but the expertise to do safely what they did. They recklessly endangered themselves and others.
The hard part comes next, however. To allow the mob to achieve its objective would reward criminality, weaken the rule of law, and set a dangerous precedent. What might the next mob do?
Silent Sam must be placed back on its pedestal and protected from future assault, perhaps with a plexiglass case as Mecklenburg County did after vandals repeatedly defaced a monument. Both the criminals and the authorities who failed to intervene must be held responsible. While most North Carolinians will agree with these decisions, some won’t. They’ll be furious. Countering their fury effectively will require leadership, not political calculation. It will be difficult. That’s the job.