After last week’s horrific terrorist attack on the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, there is widespread discussion about whether to take down the Confederate flag that flies outside the South Carolina Capitol Building. In an admirable show of leadership, Gov. Nikki Haley called for the flag to be removed. For the life of me, I don’t understand why it was ever allowed to fly in the first place. This should not even be a discussion. It is a symbol of inequality and has long been a banner for hate groups.
At the risk of making too large a generalization, those of us who grew up north of the Mason-Dixon Line do not know what to make of the South’s infatuation with the Confederate flag. In the north, the rebel flag is not often seen beyond a pickup truck bumper sticker and certainly is never raised on a pole (not without the harshest criticism from neighbors and passersby). That would be tantamount to treason because, well, the Confederates were, from my northern perspective, traitors. They defied their president, sought to deny African Americans their liberty and humanity, took up arms against their countrymen, and caused the death of more than 600,000 Americans. The Confederates betrayed their country, and their flag symbolizes that betrayal. It should never have been allowed to fly after Robert E. Lee and the Confederate army surrendered. Then, as now, the Confederate flag is a symbol of oppression and is an insult to the United States.
That’s my northern view anyway. I know there are people in the South who take a different view entirely. For some Southerners, it is a piece of their history and somehow a symbol of pride. It’s tough to look at one’s ancestors and acknowledge the harsh reality – they were slave owners and undemocratic rebels. Rather than see long-dead people for what they were, it’s easier to consider the “War of Northern Aggression” and the North-South divide as a tiff between brothers. You said some things, I said some things. Glad we hashed that out.
This Wisconsin-raised writer will never come around to that point of view, and I accept that there are many in the South who will never see things my way. They probably take offense at it. But that debate over the meaning of the Confederate flag and the appropriate way to view the Civil War is moot when we recognize that the flag is used by some as a symbol of hate and terror.
There are extremist groups in this country that would like to see a return of slavery, that view Anglo-Saxon Protestants as superior, and that are willing to use violence to advocate their ideology. We saw that in Charleston with the despicable actions of the terrorist Dylann Roof. Make no mistake. His was not only a hate crime. It was an outright act of terrorism. Roof posed in pictures burning the Stars and Stripes and waving a rebel banner. It is just the latest example of a decades-long history of racially motivated terrorism in the United States that claims the Confederate banner as their own. The Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and a host of other groups large and small use the Confederate flag to symbolize their rejection of equality, liberty and all the virtuous ideas that make the United States a righteous country.
We would never fly the Nazi Swastika on public land. But the swastika was, before the Nazis, an old symbol of luck. Likewise we would never fly the ISIS flag on public land. But the Arabic lettering you see on that flag actually just states the shahada, which is the (entirely benign) Muslim declaration of faith: “There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his Messenger.” (Lest I’m being unclear, yes, I am likening the Confederate flag to the Nazi and ISIS banners.)
The point is that flags are symbols whose meaning is defined by the people who fly them. Some swatches of color on a piece of fabric inherently mean nothing. What they represent depends on the thinking of people who appropriate the patterns and colors. And today, terrorists fly the Confederate flag.
The United States faces extremism on all fronts, from terrorists at home and abroad. Now is the time to unite in the name of peace and liberty. These are dangerous times, and lives are at stake. Divisive symbols like the Confederate flag have no place in America’s present and future. To borrow from an American president who championed unity, I say: South Carolina legislators, tear down that flag. May it never be raised again.