The dead in Charleston were not yet buried before their memory rendered a moral clarity 150 years in the making.
The arguments about whether the preponderance of the evidence lay with the Confederate battle flag as a way to honor men who may have been admirable in spite of their unconscionable cause, or against the flag as a symbol of white supremacy decades after the cause was lost — those arguments were silenced by the shots fired in a historic black church , and the colorblind grief that followed.
Within days, the young man who told police he aimed to start a “race war” instead had prompted a bipartisan, multiracial effort to remove the flag with which he’d posed from the state capitol grounds. His actions backfired with historic effect and stunning swiftness.
In fact, the speed with which sentiment hardened against the flag has been breathtaking. It is a speed that carries with it momentum: The emblem has been taken down in Alabama, its removal called for in Mississippi. Goods with the image are being removed from the shelves of Wal-Mart and the webpages of Amazon.com. Statues honoring Confederate officers from small Southern towns to the U.S. capitol find themselves targeted if not vandalized. Street names are coming under scrutiny.
It is worth pausing here to consider whether our momentum will carry us too far.
Do not misunderstand: I see no defense for keeping the flag raised at South Carolina’s state capitol. The same goes for Mississippi’s flag.
From there, however, we should proceed with caution.
Unity is a beautiful thing, and we have seen much of it since the Charleston shooting. But unity is not long sustained in a free and diverse nation. Most of the time we can settle for harmony: Different voices sounding different notes in a pleasing way.
While harmony makes room for many, there are sounds which are not lovely but rather like a resounding gong or clanging cymbal. When a government reserves a place of prominence for such an emblem as divisive as the battle flag, the message it sends is just that discordant.
Not every reminder of the war, though, is equally prone to disharmony. To act otherwise in haste is to risk the relative unity of this moment.
If consensus around the battle flag’s removal has taken too long to develop, it is in no small part because those truly interested in their heritage were fearful something like this would happen. Proving them right will make further reconciliation more, not less, difficult. And it will only add to the sense of grievance, however misconceived, among those who have already retreated to the fringes of society.
In any event, removing all signs of that misbegotten war will not heal the divisions that linger from it and its aftermath. Our energies would be better used for the hard work of building ties than the easy, but fruitless, job of toppling statues. And the only way a campaign of tearing down monuments to flawed men can end is when all monuments, everywhere, are gone.