“It’s a dangerous business going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Those are wise words written by J.R.R. Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. If you’re unfamiliar, you should make yourself familiar. It’s a masterpiece and revealing. At its core is the One Ring, an extremely powerful item created by an evil sorcerer that misleads and corrupts souls who are foolish enough to think they can use the power without consequence.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg would have been wise to heed Tolkien’s words before invoking “eminent domain” to force the property owners of the “Dead Pig” in West Ashley to sell their property. The Dead Pig is the eyesore old Piggly Wiggly that has been closed for a couple of years and creates a traffic nightmare that has been termed the Suicide Merge. Tecklenburg wants to turn it into a public space and adjust the traffic pattern to make it safer. The concept is appealing, but does the end justify the means? At the very least eminent domain is little more than bullying. At its worst, it’s straight up stealing.
We like to believe we live in a country where we have certain rights. However, eminent domain reveals the thin and fragile nature of our free society. Eminent domain, in very basic terms, is a legal concept used by a bigger, stronger entity (the government) to take property they want from a property owner who would otherwise be legally protected from giving it up. It is an extremely powerful weapon and like any power, easily abused.
Eminent domain, though, is bonded to the idea of the “public’s best interest.” Tecklenburg can’t just take land. He had to get permission from the City Council and it is supposed to be in the public’s best interest. However, this is where the biggest problem lies. The public’s best interest is an extremely vague and subjective notion. It is completely dependent on who is wielding the sword at the time.
For example, we currently have a president who spends more time golfing than studying the names of the countries he’s bombing. He puts the EPA into the hands of monster energy conglomerates and works to make it easier for federally protected lands to become oil fields. With the stroke of a pen he encourages the physical abuse and arrest of Native Americans for the sake of an oil pipeline. Safe drinking water for Americans takes a back seat to Big Energy. Internet privacy is gone because it is profitable. Racism is en vogue and celebrated with walls. Trump is like an Orc general and all of this is under the guise of what is best for us.
Without a concrete, defined moral base, though, the concept of right and wrong is the epitome of ambiguity. Furthermore, placing something as powerful as eminent domain in the realm of ambiguity puts great faith in the character of elected officials. But when a man who brags about using his status to molest women can become president of the United States, I don’t see how anyone can have faith in that. In a world where values are nothing more than a bumper sticker, it is imperative that we grasp and wrangle every tiny thread of decency. We cannot depend on the government to do it for us. That is something of which I am certain.
As a nature-lover, I would enjoy seeing more green spaces. It would be amazing to have another park in West Ashley instead of the Dead Pig. However, I can’t support bullying and taking what is not rightfully yours to make it happen. By the way, the term “legal” is not synonymous with moral.
Eminent domain has its place, but it was misused here. While I know this world is far from perfect, on the individual level we can make decisions which allow us to keep our conscience clear. It would have been nice to see a park produced at that location without putting a knife to someone’s figurative throat. We’re past that now. Perhaps that knife will be used to cut a piece of the most beautiful chocolate cake you’ve ever seen as the Mayor gets word that demolition is happening. Maybe that knife gets thrown into the fires of Mount Doom in Mordor. I guess it all depends on who’s holding it. I only hope that Mayor Tecklenburg has his own Samwise Gangee to accompany him on this journey. Be careful how you use your power, Mayor, and “keep your feet.” The Eye of Sauron is upon you.
Ali was born in Greenville, SC but grew up in High Point, N.C. where he studied English/Writing at High Point University. He has called Charleston home since 2006 and wants to believe Bigfoot is real.