Sometimes publicity about West Virginia is cringe-worthy. A decade ago, our state’s obesity became a well-known weighty subject. A few years later, our tragic opioid overdoses were viewed worldwide. We’ve publicly acknowledged those problems by working to change their negative effects.
But as 2019 ended, we outdid ourselves with stupidity and callousness as the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Basic Training class posed for a graduation photo showing the students giving the Nazi salute. The approximately 30 future correctional officers extended their arms and hands, as Hitler demanded his Nazi subjects do in the 1930s and 1940s. Numerous media outlets widely disseminated this shameful photo.
Use of the Nazi salute is inexcusable in any environment, but its use here illustrates the ignorance of those who, ironically, were training staff how to handle people needing to correct their own behaviors. It is unbelievable that West Virginia’s Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation employed a training officer, Karrie Byrd, who said she “had no idea of the historical or racial implications of the gesture (Nazi salute) and thought it was simply a greeting.” After the picture was taken, a secretary asked why the people in the photo were so posed. Byrd remarked, “That’s why they do that because I’m a hardass like Hitler.”
The headline on Jake Zuckerman’s HD Media article in The Herald-Dispatch read, “Report: Nazi salutes displayed early, often.” This behavior was not an isolated instance. Data indicate that Byrd required that the photo be retaken may times because some students objected to the gesture but feared they would not graduate if they didn’t comply.
Are our state leaders unaware of Hitler’s atrocities? Do they not know he systematically killed, starved and tortured six million Jews in the Holocaust and millions of others who disagreed with him? Don’t our schools teach 20th century history? George Santanya’s early 20th century statement, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is still true a century later.
The Associated Press reported that Byrd also taught the course on “Cultural Diversity,” which begs the question as how our state’s instructors are chosen. A few students in Byrd’s class refused to do the open hand salute; instead they chose to make a fist rather than hold out an outstretched hand. The clenched fist salute often has been used as an oppositional statement and became a Black Power symbol when John Carlos and Tommie Smith used it while receiving their medals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. But of course, the “cultural diversity instructor” didn’t know this or, apparently, much else.
Ms. Byrd gives us cause to recall the words of German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller, sent to Nazi concentration camps for publicly opposing Hitler. Niemöller lamented he did not speak up earlier when the socialists, labor unionists or Jews were imprisoned, so when the Nazis came for him, no one was left to speak for him. When we know our leaders are wrong, we must speak up, even when we risk negative repercussions.
According to NPR, the final investigative report indicated that the behavior was “highly offensive,” but not discriminatory towards any “racial, religious or ethnic group.” Wrong! The Nazi salute is discriminatory to Jews and anyone who opposes inhumane violent dictators. West Virginia cannot afford to accept or broadcast stupidity.