I didn”t go to the Sept. 11 candlelight vigil on the Diag and I”m not going to tonight”s candlelight vigil “honoring the memories of all victims of hate crimes.”
As with the Sept. 11 vigil, my absence tonight will not be due to some unfortunate scheduling conflict. I”m not going tonight for the simple reason that I just don”t want to go. So wha”d”ya think about that?
If I may speculate, my guess is that it”s something along the lines of “wow, this guy”s a real jackass!” This is precisely why I oppose vigils in general.
For whatever reason, attending vigils in the wake of tragedy has assumed undue moral significance. Implicit in vigil attendance is the idea that attendees must really care about the object the vigil (i.e. whoever has been victimized) otherwise they would not have bothered to come to said vigil in the first place. There”s nothing inherently wrong with this idea in itself, the problem here is that people have started to assume that attending a vigil means that you must have more empathy for whoever has died (or otherwise been wronged) than non-attendees.
Others have noted this assumption as well. The other day I was discussing tonight”s hate crimes vigil with a Muslim colleague who told me that Muslim and Arab students felt like they had to have a large presence at the Sept. 11 vigil. Not only was there an obvious sense of collective horror at what had happened among Muslim and Arab students, but there was also widespread fear that hate crimes against Muslim and Arab students would increase if there was not a sufficient Muslim/Arab presence at the candlelight vigil.
Were these students just paranoid? I think not, and that”s a total disgrace. Apparently, the idea that if you don”t attend some hokey ceremony in honor of the victims of ________, you just don”t care as much as the people who did go has gained enough strength to make people feel unsafe.
No doubt the organizers of tonight”s vigil (which includes the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee) will argue that the purpose of vigils is nothing more than to provide members of the University community with an opportunity to reflect, and express their personal grief and solidarity with the victims of tragedy. Anyone who reads more into vigil attendance is simply missing the point.
This reply is disingenuous at best. Vigils are fundamentally public. Think about the props and actions that typically appear at vigils candles (often lit off of each other), songs, hand holding (often in a circle), flags, signs, impromptu speeches, verse (often poorly written)
These are all ways of making a statement they have absolutely nothing to do with a personal coming-to-terms-with X experience. Ask yourself, when was the last time you heard of someone having a vigil in the middle of the woods, where no one else can see it? Yeah, I thought so.
Though my primary reason for not going to tonight”s vigil has to do with not wanting to associate myself with any type of ritual that people attach dangerously too much moral weight to, I also have specific complaints about how the hate crimes vigil was handled last year.
Being a little more nave last year, I thought it would be a good idea to express my outrage over hate crimes (which, I might add, persists despite my dislike for vigils), by attending the hate crimes vigil. One of the main issues discussed was the need for hate crimes legislation, specifically legislation that requires tougher criminal penalties when a crime is motivated by racial, ethnic, religious, etc. hatred.
The brutal 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American beaten to death by two white men who were subsequently sentenced to 3 years probation and fined $3,780, was presented as evidence for why we need legislation mandating stiffer penalties for individuals who commit hate crimes.
Naturally, this story shocked everyone at the vigil, but is this why we need hate crimes legislation that takes away judges” discretion when they impose sentences? In this particular case, it sounds like the real problem wasn”t that judges have discretion pronouncing sentences, but that Charles Kaufmann, the judge who handled Chin”s case, was a racist. Shouldn”t we work, then, to get rid of racist judges instead of putting all judges in tighter straight jackets when it comes to handing down sentences? This possibility was never discussed.
Perhaps even more importantly, the speakers at last year”s vigil never discussed why crimes motivated by hatred of the victim”s race, sexual orientation, etc. are so much more reprehensible than other reprehensible crimes. Suppose Chin”s attackers beat him to death not because of his race but simply because they wanted to know what it felt like to beat the life out of another man would this motive not be just as morally repugnant as killing someone because of his or her race? It”s hard to see why not.
Clearly the Chin case was, to borrow a clich, a gross miscarriage of justice and clearly proactive steps need to be taken to address hate crimes. Tonight”s vigil, however, hardly constitutes such a step.
Nick Woomer can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may want to e-mail him since he probably just lost a few friends.