Sister Denise Mosier, well-loved Benedictine nun and educator, was killed last week, and two other nuns were severely injured in a car crash that, by all accounts, was caused by a man who had been convicted twice previously of drunken driving.
That this man is said to be in the United States without legal authority has been seized upon as the reason for, or direct cause of, this tragic event. His immigration status, rather than his conduct, has become prime political fodder for the debate.
Outrage should be focused on the failure of the local prosecutor and the courts to hold this man for the maximum term, or one year, allowable for a second-offense, drunken-driving conviction rather rather than the failure of federal officials to deport him. Why should federal officials make deporting this man a priority, moving him to the top of their list of dangerous criminals when the Prince William County prosecutor and the courts released him from jail after 20 days, even though he was sentenced to serve 363? No one is asking why, as Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert was quoted recently as saying, “This guy got treated pretty leniently, but this is a typical disposition.” If this man was so dangerous, why wasn't he kept in jail?
Shifting this case from an instance of drunken driving to the justification for extended police powers to enforce immigration laws elevates status and stereotypes over reasoned decision making based on individual character and conduct.
Too many Americans no longer see immigration as a positive ingredient in our national melting pot. Rather, it is being posited as a noxious weed thrown into a politically toxic stew. To use this tragic accident as justification for Virginia to join Arizona in seeking to do what the federal government is constitutionally charged to do, i.e., secure our national borders and direct our foreign policy, is grossly misguided, though sadly in character with our nation's and Virginia's historical mistreatment of our fellow human beings.
Virginia's place in this history is well-documented. The very first Virginians were illegal immigrants to the native Powhatan Confederacy. Establishing our rights to this land by force, Virginia has traditionally been quick to gloss over this history, rather than acknowledge that our birthright citizenship derives from the forcible taking of the lands of others.
Virginia anchored the triangle trade, importing thousands upon thousands of African men, women and children as one would furniture, enacting laws to protect the commerce of exporting human misery as well. Once here, blacks and their children were doomed to a cycle of enslavement that persisted beyond their freedom. Virginia became more creative after Reconstruction, first by economic enslavement through sharecropping, then physical restriction by way of Jim Crow laws.
Virginia's contempt for Others extended beyond enslavement and segregation. German Nazis marveled, and then imitated on a grand scale, the Virginia eugenics programs of the 1920s, which condoned mandatory sterilization through the late 1970s. Virginia participated in the massive confiscation of property in order to establish the Shenandoah National Park, confiscating land and throwing off hundreds of people in order to create a playground for the well-to-do.
Virginia defended the idea blacks could not marry whites in Loving v. Virginia, fought desegregation through Massive Resistance, established segregation academies and closed public schools, and rejected busing programs to desegregate public education.
Today, we still honor Lee and Jackson with their own special day in the commonwealth, though in 2007 the General Assembly finally passed a resolution seeking to atone for our grim history and to encourage reconciliation.
Yet with the downturn in today's economy, declining revenues and the strain on public services, is it any wonder that some are reaching back into Virginia's historical playbook?
Is Virginia's DNA really so hard-wired?
Emmanuel Levinas was a Jewish philosopher who survived both world wars. In their aftermath, Levinas observed mass society and saw the dehumanizing effects of militarism, conscription, nationalism, propaganda and the germs of mass marketing.
Unlike the Enlightenment thinkers who emphasized our equality, Levinas suggested that we should see something greater than ourselves in our fellow human beings. The Other, Levinas suggests, should be put on a place slightly higher than ourselves, because to Levinas, each opportunity to meet this Other was an encounter with the being who made that person: God.
It isn't surprising to discover this outlook deeply predisposed postwar thinkers and philosophers. The late Pope John Paul II and a further generation — including Benedictine nuns — were influenced by his beliefs.
Like most unfathomable tragedies, the death of a well-loved woman in Prince William County provokes a desire to take action, even without regard to reason.
Whatever the perceived justification, as a community we must never allow the facts of an individual case or one person's outrageous conduct to dictate policy for an entire group of human beings.
Virginia has a long history of confusing justification with justice. The Benedictine nuns, the victims in this tragedy, have set an example for Virginia's policy makers and elected officials to follow. Let us have the courage to break with the past.
Demand an end to open borders, reform our immigration policies, but do not confuse the defense of liberties with the extension of license, and allow a long history of injustice against the Other to repeat itself in the commonwealth.
Shaun Kenney is former communications director of the Republican Party of Virginia, vice chairman of the Fluvanna County Board of Supervisors and contributor to the blog BearingDrift. Claire Guthrie GastaAñaga is former chief deputy attorney general of Virginia and a pro-immigrant advocate.
Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.