With the trial date announced for Laurence Lovett, Jr., the alleged second accomplice in the Eve Carson murder, a tension and a little controversy that flows beneath the surface of campus life seems to have been slightly stirred.
It came to my attention that there was a moment of excitement in the newsroom of the Daily Tar Heel this week at the prospect of getting to report on this murder trial. Yet the idea of being excited about anything related to Carson’s murder stirs negative sentiments. I want to try to unpack this a little because I think the trial, and this event in particular, are coinciding with an important moment on this campus.
This year, the class that entered in 2008 — the first class to matriculate after Carson’s death — will graduate. That means that few current undergraduates ever went to school with Carson. A limited number of students knew her personally or met her at all.
This is crucial to me on a level greater than symbolism because it changes some of the moral questions we ask. For the past four years, it was something like “Do we do Carson’s memory justice by feeling solidarity with her?” Now, the pertinent question, as raised in the newsroom of the Daily Tar Heel this week, is the converse: “Do we do Carson’s memory injustice by feeling removed?”
As I see it, these questions flow directly from the way Carson’s memory has been treated since her death.
Eve Carson exists today as a totem. She is remembered as the physical embodiment of what people at UNC call “The Carolina Way,” which heretofore was ethereal. You might think I’m being hyperbolic, but consider how she is represented. We read her quotes everywhere, including on the bottom of today’s DTH. Speaker series are named in her honor. We often are asked to submit to ourselves the question: “What would Eve do?” or “What would Eve want?” I have sat in lectures where opening remarks evoke her as a muse, saying that what was to follow was inspired by her passion and interests. In this way, she’s a Christ figure for our institution.
The community today isn’t the same community as 2008. Almost all of the people in it have moved on, as is the nature of university communities. We are bound only by the ties to place, but Eve and her murder are neither physically nor temporally proximate to us now.
Yet “Eve” is sacred. Our institution inculcates this as a first principle in students to this day, and I imagine it will for some time. Crucially, as long as honoring Eve is sacred, the mere possibility of dishonoring her is to be profane.
To me, this creates a problem.
I am inclined to think that there is no moral wrong committed in young aspiring reporters taking excitement to the prospect of covering real and consequential news. I don’t think anyone actually thinks that these students were glad Carson was murdered. And yet we still feel a bit of discomfort when hearing the anecdote. And why shouldn’t we? We feel as if we are somehow failing to respect the sacred.
But four years removed from the murder, we should be able to say “No” to the second question I posed:
“Do we do Carson’s memory injustice by feeling removed?“
It is natural and necessary for humans to feel empathy. But we have to resist the other natural impulse to cope with tragedy by sanctifying the victim, and being scornful of those who are don’t do so, can’t do so, and shouldn’t have to. We need not make the dead divine to honor them (personally, I think we dishonor them in a way by implying that they need to be more than they were). But as long as UNC insists on holding fast to Eve as sacred, it will continue to sow moral discomfort among those who feel obligated but incapable of expressing that sentiment.
If you still think it’s too soon, then I ask “When will it not be?” Laying a false sense of solidarity at the altar forever, and asking others to do so, seems odious to me and prohibitive of the kind of moral flourishing we hope and expect people to do here.