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Our Opinion: UNC ‘compromise’ fails Silent Sam’s fans and foes alike

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Wherever he’s been stowed away for safekeeping, Silent Sam is surely shaking his head.

This week, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors rubber-stamped Chancellor Carol Folt’s proposal to move the toppled Confederate soldier statue to a new $5.3 million history center where Sam would serve as the main attraction.

The pitch was an attempt at compromise, but one so poorly calibrated that it’s managed to infuriate both sides in the roiling debate over Confederate memorials — people who feel Sam’s continued display glorifies slavery and segregation and Southern descendants who believe their ancestors’ Civil War sacrifices merit public recognition.

For members of the latter group, moving the statue is capitulation to those who wish to sideline Sam because it reduces the monument’s visibility. For those who consider the soldier a racist totem, building Sam a multimillion-dollar home on campus only adds injury to insult.

Both supporters and opponents of the statue have valid grievances with Folt’s middling non-solution.

Regardless of their animosity or affection toward Silent Sam, everyone should balk at the staggering public expense. The building’s high sticker price is due to state-of-the-art security features it would contain in an effort to prevent vandals from damaging or destroying the statue again. Putting the plan into practice would require an annual commitment of $800,000 to maintain Sam’s new abode.

UNC is funded by North Carolina taxpayers. It’s unfair to make people pay through the nose in perpetuity for a divisive decoration. As The News & Observer editorial board noted, $5 million and more than three quarters of a million bucks every year could fund a whole lot of scholarships.

Sam’s detractors want Carolina to mothball the old soldier, but their demands can’t be reconciled with state law that prevents the removal of such memorials without the blessing of the N.C. Historical Commission, which voted in August that similar Confederate monuments should remain on display with signs and plaques added to provide greater historical context.

Protesters have long held rallies near the statue, holding signs and leading chants calling for its removal. Doing so was, and is, their First Amendment right. But on Aug. 20, some demonstrators ceased being citizen advocates and crossed the line into lawlessness when they used ropes to pull the bronze soldier from his perch.

Vandalism is not peaceful protest and cannot be tolerated. Several suspects were arrested in the aftermath of Silent Sam’s fall and face charges in Orange County District Court.

University officials have delayed reinstalling Sam as they wring their hands about what to do next. The answer should have been simple — investigate and correct the security failures, fix the statue and return the repaired piece of public property to the place from which it was unlawfully removed.

Building a “shrine” to Silent Sam won’t mollify his admirers because it is, in essence, a concession to the vandals who brought him low.

“This is surrender to the mob,” Brant Clifton writes on his conservative North Carolina politics blog The Daily Haymaker. “It’s the breakdown of civilized society when we cower in fear about what the mob might do next and shape our actions with the hope of avoiding offending said mob.”

Clifton’s largely right, and the warped logic that would lead UNC to move Sam indoors leads to a slippery slope. Rewarding vandalism is sure to create more vandals. Is the university unable or just unwilling to maintain order on its campus as it’s currently configured?

We had no objection to Gov. Roy Cooper’s wiser, savvier compromise that would see Confederate monuments moved to Civil War sites like the Bentonville Battlefield in Johnston County. Preservationists ought not grouse too loudly about commemorating the War Between the States in the places where it was actually fought. And folks who bristle at such statues could simply vote with their feet and keep their distance.

The state historical commission wouldn’t swing at Cooper’s pitch. Now we’re stuck with Chancellor Folt’s curveball.

UNC’s proposal requires approval from the state university system’s board, which is scheduled to consider the matter on Dec. 14. If board members are responsible stewards of taxpayer money who understand that lawbreakers aren’t the ones who get to decide when public property is moved, they’ll give this plan the thumbs-down.

For now, the rule of law requires that Silent Sam return to his perch. For later, those who wish to boot him off campus can pursue that end through the conventional means of lobbying, campaigning and convincing rather than the illegitimate tactics of rioting, toppling and damaging.

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