I have been watching a multitude of news channels wrestle with the tragedy that occurred in Charlottesville last week. Like many across our diverse country I was extremely upset by the violent death of an innocent woman, Heather Heyer, who felt compelled to be present and stand in protest against a group of white supremacists that represent an ideology of racism, intolerance, and exclusion that runs so counter to all that our country stands for and aspires to be. A core element of our country’s strength still rests on the power of a simple and profound idea contained in that mighty document that set American’s course to break free of our Colonial master, Great Britain, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The view of white supremacy runs so counter to these powerful words and I am reminded of the early days of Nazi Germany where so many voices lay silent as the Nazi’s encroached day by day on the rights of their Jewish citizens until they had no rights and were brought in mass to be slaughtered in concentration camps across Germany and Europe. Heather refused to be silent and she paid a terrible price for her courage. We must honor her courage by standing up for our ideals of democracy, liberty and justice for all regardless of one’s race, ethnicity or country of origin.
I had the great privilege of attending the United States Military Academy and while I like many of my classmates did not fully appreciate all that I had received in my four years at this great institution, I have come to realize that perhaps the greatest gift I received was the inculcation of a deep set of values and virtues that are intertwined with the values and virtues that formed and continued to sustain our great country. Virtues like honor and integrity, selflessness and service, duty and loyalty-all these integrated into a simple but profound word, character. As cadets, we were taught to live by a higher standard and to be “leaders of character”. In our Honor Code, we knew that not only were we not to lie, cheat or steal but also bound to an intolerance of those who did and if we did not report our fellow cadet’s transgressions, we too were in violation of the code and subject to dismissal from the Academy. As part of our assimilation into West Point and the United States Military we had to memorize facts and quotes that reflected the traditions and culture. Perhaps one of the most inspiring and meaningful quotes was the Cadet Prayer that included these powerful words:
Strengthen and increase our admiration for honest dealing and clean thinking, and suffer not our hatred of hypocrisy and pretense ever to diminish. Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won. Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy.
These words continue to echo in my mind and challenge me to be a person of character and to choose a path of integrity and to not shy away from taking a stand when I see injustice. It indeed is a higher standard and it is hard and I have to admit that I have faltered in my life journey. However, I think we all honor Heather’s voice and death by taking a stand against any ideology that smacks of racism, bigotry, religious, social or sexual orientation intolerance. And taking a stand does not mean resorting to the kind of violence that took the life of Heather but instead it does call us to speak up and out against what the white supremacists represent and to peacefully gather in vast numbers of diverse Americans saying, “this is not who we are and we stand for a country where all are created equal.”