This is tough but necessary to write about, this crime, this hateful, despicable and wretched, cowardly crime. I want to talk about the man who died, and what this loss means for all of us, and its transformative power because that’s what we are left with and our capacity to respond now willfully and calmly depends on recognizing what we lost. This young man, Daniel Anderl, was the best, the very best, a young and manly spirit shaped by the still vital institutions of St. Joseph’s Metuchen and the Catholic University of America, a community called New Jersey, and mostly a family built by deeply rooted American values and virtues. Those roots went deeper, as it turned out, than anything any American family should ever be asked to give.
No country is ever fully formed or handed to us, and so as Americans we find ourselves either constantly grappling or paying a price when we choose to give in. We lose, without a finely tuned realization of our ongoing test, and in so many obvious ways, we have allowed a world of hatred to fester and erupt in our midst. Instead of confronting hate head on, we have languished on the backs of former battles undertaken by others, our mothers and fathers, won in some other distant time. We have, in our goodwill and tolerance, or our complacency and laziness, acquiesced, even nodding off perhaps to the rhetoric of politicians who in the past radiated a degree of apparent good sense, who now, in an attempt to play to hate, assume the preposterous xenophobic posture of objecting to people who “are not from here.” Newsflash. Only the Leni Lenape came from here. The rest of us at one point had to schlep to these shores and struggle to hold a community together, and we have relied on flawed institutions that in most cases far exceeded, as an enduring consequence of the best traditions of the enlightenment, the judicial systems our kind crawled out of to get here. We who have paid attention know too, as Malcolm X once said, that many Americans who resided here many more years than we have, still do not enjoy even a thimbleful of justice, and that is a persistent evil onto itself.
We know our institutions have failed to live up to what should be etched into the stone of our civic being, even if we long ago, some of us, cast it adrift. Those of us who have lived long enough to remember Vietnam know the dreadful hit our country sustained as a consequence of that war and of the Kennedy assassination, as we never received adequate explanation for the killing of our beloved president or a straight answer for why we went to war; a president who was not the uninspiring, underground animation of a bug-eyed bureaucracy but an exemplar of our deepest immigrant aspirations, combined with a sense of sacrifice for the country and a glimpse at what our great but tarnished institutions might be. Those of us old enough remember Abu Garib and know how easily assumed nobility becomes the corridor to a moral abyss.
Now in context especially, President Barack Obama’s appointment of Esther Salas as a judge of the United States District Court of New Jersey went far beyond the dreadful, stupid conclusion that this fulfilled some rote play to political correctness. Those of us who have been paying attention to history, those whose son or brother or sister came home in a body bag, or whose father or uncle ended up sitting in a prison cell for a lifetime or half a life, know that the compounded stagnant pillars, mostly of our recent past, including the woefully inadequate cross-section of government and the law and church, desperately require an upgrade. Obama’s appointment of Esther Salas – in the same spirit of public professional advancement that once marked the career of the late great Justice William Brennan – aimed precisely at revitalizing our institutions through a more refined and more egalitarian sense of justice, the core of who we are. It was a critical and deeply patriotic act by the President, undertaken to sustain – even in a small but powerful way – the life of our republic, which depends on the frequent and energetic investment of new populations, our broader sense of its reach and perspective, to include women as well as men, for purposes of restorative health, undergirded by the same fundament of our democratic principles.
The fact that this appointment ultimately jarred some racist, sexist murderous maniac out there shows the depth of dislocation, the depth of sickness and disaffection from the promise of the country, which now – right now! – we must resist with everything we have learned, every fistfight we’ve ever been in, every test we ever had to take with our backs against the wall, every undertow and every dark road traveled as United States citizens and as New Jerseyans, who amid all our squalor and disrepair, still own a fighting spirit at the core, and know something about loving one another in this place called America because this is our home, where we as people of Spanish descent, break bread with North Africans. We, the Irish Catholic, play football and baseball with the Irish Protestant. We are the Japanese kid named Taco who works at an Italian restaurant and gets into a debate about the works of Heidegger. Always have been. You better love the diversity here, brother, or find somewhere else to live, because I’ve personally tried living where there isn’t any, and come back begging for it, because this is who we are and this is how we love.
Did we underestimate the extent to which this sick hatred of America exists and pervades?
We know it’s there.
We don’t forget.
We know our past.
We know the level of sacrifice.
We know it’s always been there, otherwise there would have been no fight to get here.
On Sunday night it didn’t feel like much of anywhere.
But we know, we’re painfully reminded, of the courage Esther Salas showed at the outset to take the seat in the first place, to be a pioneer. That it ever came to this because of some sick individual is almost cause for despair. We already have the compounded anxieties of the virus and the economy and all our unresolved troubles before that to absorb. But through all the worst it, somehow the best of us still showed a way; taught us again how it’s never been easy; it’s never come without tremendous cost and sacrifice.
The judge’s son, Daniel Anderl, this young man, was the best of who we are. The best. I know the institutions he came from, and know he was the reason they remained upright. The faith and talent of men like him are the reason we have schools and teams and games on the line and wins. A young man who played baseball. Who excelled in school. Dean’s list. Who was, by all accounts, kind and smart and handsome and moral. Whose face and mien speak of the finest, enduring intentions of our ragged institutions, and the most righteous and quality associations of a fighting family name.
This hurts. There’s no way around saying it and feeling it and suffering even just a small part of what the judge’s family is going through right now. But we will get up. We will persist. We will keep fighting. We lost John Lewis this past weekend, who got beaten so hard at the Edmund Pettus Bridge they almost killed him back in 1965, and we lost Daniel Anderl, who was found in his own home by a sick coward with a gun, not a stick, and never had a chance because of the way this assailant struck, but who in the end died for the same cause as Lewis.
We know our task in this sometimes God forsaken place called America is not to attack and be mean and resort to convenient self-serving phrases and get trapped in arguments that aren’t, in the finest sense, lawyerly, to advance only our own self-interest. We know the job, after so much devastation and erosion of trust, is to find a way to improve the country and our community, to restore and revitalize, not break, our institutions; and to not collapse under a weight of agony, but to answer with a sense of gratitude, of deep and respectful gratitude, the beautiful gift of grace bestowed by Esther Salas and Mark Anderl, who gave the best, and, as it turned out, sacrificed the most to reanimate what we must never, ever take for granted; or in complacency or loss of identity allow to unravel in disrepair.
We labor mostly with a sense of quiet gravity and grave determination. And know this. We will lawfully, peacefully and with the weight of our country’s wisdom with us, this November turn a hate-filled, racist and dreadful scourge from the White House, which has operated outside the boundaries of our gritty history, which pays other people to take an SAT test, which in ignorance defies ground gained by each generation, one after the next, in an absurd, pitiful attempt to play on the fears of the deranged and the ignorant, and take some jagged place that once resembled the country back to pre-Civil War days and routinely tap all those worst, buried impulses of hatred.
We will find a way to take the best of who we are, John Lewis and Daniel Anderl, and build out of the gifts given and bitterly taken; we will find our way back to the path despite the bigoted madness of a murderer to interrupt our march. We will find a way to find the best in us still, with the example of a fine manly face, a credit to the New Jersey race, and an example of a generation that, unprovoked, has had to endure the selfish temper tantrums and hostility and now worse among those insistent that the country, America, didn’t really exist.
We know because Daniel Anderl lived, and on that memory we will reinforce a principle, and we will prevail.