- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 22, 2000

If someone had defaced a Richmond mural of Martin Luther King Jr. or the city's statue of Arthur Ashe, the scandal would have attracted national attention. As it was, somebody merely torched a mural of Robert E. Lee, the venerable Confederate general, and scrawled ugly graffiti "Kill white devil" on his statue. So aside from some rumblings from local students of history, the arson hasn't made much news.

Indeed, now that the damage has been done, a critic who had opposed including Lee's likeness in a "war" mural in the first place says it probably ought to remain off it for good. "I would say if you put it back up," said Richmond City Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin, "you are inviting another act of vandalism." Or perhaps Mr. El-Amin himself is inviting another act of vandalism. Try to imagine suggesting that because a mural of Mr. King had been torched, it ought to remain down lest it encourage another round of arson.

As reported by this newspaper's Stephen Dinan, the arson occurred Monday when someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the image, causing a flash fire. Perhaps not coincidentally, the attack took place on the holiday on which Virginia honors Lee, as well as his fabled "right arm," Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and King. It forced the city to take down the rest of the mural, including Abraham Lincoln, in order to consider how or even whether to make repairs.

Thus does an attack on Lee wind up taking down a symbol of postwar reconciliation from which a city rent by war and then by animosities that, in Mr. El-Amin's case, linger to this day, has tried to learn. Lee himself turned his desire to defend Virginia from what he considered Northern aggression into a desire to educate young minds at a place now known as Washington and Lee University. A more graceful model of reconciliation is hard to imagine.

Mr. El-Amin, and no doubt others, regard Lee as something far worse, an oppressor who led an army in defense of slavery. There is no arguing, no room for discussion, with a man of his convictions. And so when Lee's image first went up on a downtown floodwall as part of an exhibit on the city's history, Mr. El-Amin demanded that it come down. Down it came, and a local committee struggled for months to decide whether to put it back up. The group reached a compromise by surrounding Lee with images more welcome to the critics. There the matter remained until the arson.

No decision has been made about whether Lee's image will be restored to the wall. For his part Mr. El-Amin is asking that it be kept down in an attempt to avoid replaying the bitter controversy of which he was a part. "What happens now depends on people of good will," he said, referring to those who want the mural restored.

Mr. El-Amin may, if he wishes, segregate history according to his own wishes. He may pretend that what he doesn't like didn't really happen. He can demand the Confederate statues on Richmond's Monument Avenue disappear, insist that Lee's memory come down brick by brick at Washington and Lee. That's the approach of the mural burners. But rewriting history makes it a useless thing from which to learn. And ultimately he can't change it anyway. He should try reconciling himself to it. As Lee did.

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