I went for a long walk the other day, pondering this perplexing question...
It's been quite an eventful week on the national scene, wouldn't you say?
From bloody attacks on foreign soil to domestic terrorism right here at home, the world seems headed for a scary flashpoint of some kind.
And, while it's easy to condemn acts of senseless violence that claim innocent lives, it's oftentimes difficult to dissect the reasons behind them.
Anyone who knows me can attest that I don't have a political bone in my body.
I don't know (and frankly don't really care) whether you are a Democrat or Republican, Libertarian or Green Party member.
That being said, there's a palpable electricity in the air right now. You can feel it in coffee shops and local pubs. You can read it in the papers, see it on television and experience it virtually on social media.
The most recent rallying point of the so-called “Alt-Right” movement centered on a statue of General Robert E. Lee, located in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia.
Folks have been clamoring for statues such as this one, dedicated to the memory of the Confederacy, to be removed from public lands.
One side sees such monuments as American history, the other views them as hateful symbols of simmering racism.
At first glance, it seems like an easy dilemma to solve. Once you delve into it a bit, though, you quickly discover a complex question with passionate advocates on each side.
Having a calm, rational discussion of any kind about war memorials and monuments is tricky.
After all, there are two sides to every armed conflict and finding a fair way to memorialize each is just about impossible.
It's an ages-old axiom that “to the victors go the spoils.” However, it's equally true that winners in war generally get to write the history of that war, too.
And that, my friends, can be a dicey proposition.
The simple fact is that the Union won the American Civil War. There's just no debating it … unless you happen to be of a certain mindset and living in the deep south.
My parents spend the better part of four months every year in southwest Florida, which is for the most part a sleepy and peaceful region.
However, my Dad (a former school teacher and voracious reader) got a rude awakening when he walked into a bookstore several years ago.
One of his passions is Civil War history and he was pleased to see that this particular business had a large section dedicated to the conflict.
In short order, though, Dad received quite a shock when he noticed many of the books featured what can charitably called an alternate history.
“It's amazing,” he told me on the phone. “These people think the South won the Civil War.”
It may seem a bit delusional, but in places far from Wayne County, a long-festering resentment has grown to the point of violence … as evidenced by the tragic events that took place in Charlottesville.
And its most potent symbols right now are those controversial statues.
Two summers ago, I took a trip to the Gettysburg National Military Park
All told, there are more than 1,300 monuments strewn all over the vast battlefield. Several hundred of these are dedicated to the Confederacy. They mark specific unit locations, artillery batteries and even spots where generals had their headquarters.
To date, no one has asked that these markers be removed. In fact, Katie Lawhorn, the park's spokesperson, told the USA Today just this week that the southern monuments aren't going anywhere.
And, she's absolutely right. I've walked the Gettysburg battlefield. I've stood on Little Round Top among the ghosts of the 20th Maine and said a quiet little prayer for the poor souls butchered in Devil's Den.
Brave soldiers from both sides ought to be remembered. They gave their lives in defense of what they believed was right … no matter how misguided that belief may have turned out to be.
Do we have the right, 152 years later, to erase these memories … even if they are viewed as perpetuating the evil of slavery?
On Thursday afternoon, I sneaked out of the newsroom in search of a quiet place to ponder such questions.
I ambled over to Central Park for a quick visit with our own Civil War monument. I then strolled down Church Street, crossed Brigadier General Richard Tallman Memorial Bridge, and headed down Riverside Drive.
My destination was Glen Dyberry Cemetery, the perfect place to walk and think undisturbed. I eventually wound up at the Bivouac of the Dead, an idyllic little spot shaded by trees and overlooking the Dyberry Creek.
There is a monument to Captain James Ham (killed at the battle of Five Forks, Virginia) and more than a dozen other Civil War soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their nation.
They are arranged in a circle (a symbolic reminder of a wartime camping ground), interspersed with small American flags.
Deep in thought, pen and pad in hand, I wandered to the far end of the site and abruptly snapped out of my reverie. There, all alone among these Civil War relics, was a pair of modern gravestones.
One marks the eternal resting place of my old friend and teammate, Rocco Musella.
My Kind of Marker
Rocco was an enigmatic, mercurial man.
He had his demons (don't we all?), but he also had a smile and a kind word for everyone he met. In short, Rocco had a good heart and that's just about the best compliment I can think of.
He passed away in January and I really miss him.
Statues, monuments and markers are important. They can serve not just to memorialize, but also to teach and even to warn.
Of all the monuments I encountered on this day, the one that affected me most was Rocco's. Standing there in the cool shadows of a life cut tragically short, my interest in the abstract understandably waned.
I wanted to think more about Rocco's toothy smile and goofy laugh, less about slavery and the Confederacy. Is that admirable? Probably not. Is it human? Absolutely.
So, all things considered, my conclusion is this:
Statues that recall the heroes of the Confederacy have their proper places, and those places are National Parks (like Gettysburg) and museums.
They don't belong on public land, on courthouse grounds or near government buildings.
And, my overriding wish today in this:
I hope one day we can all spend more time recalling the lives of people like Rocco than fighting over ugly symbols of our nation's most shameful chapter.