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Five years ago, a mob of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and elements of the so-called “alt-right” rampaged through Charlottesville and clashed violently with counter-protesters, a terrifying display that left one woman dead, scores injured and the nation in shock.

For many Americans, it was the first time they had witnessed the terror that an energized, organized and emboldened far right could unleash. And while that movement may be less visible today, it continues to recruit the vulnerable, disaffected and misguided to its villainous cause.

As the nation recalls the events in Charlottesville, this moment should serve as a powerful reminder that white nationalist extremism persists, despite our efforts to stamp it out, and that we must be vigilant to defend against its insidious influence.

What happened five years ago was a failure in every sense of the word. There was ample evidence long before the “Unite the Right” rally that it would draw some of the most despicable and dangerous people to Charlottesville, eager to show their face to the world.

That introduction — a torch-lit march on the University of Virginia campus — was intended to echo the Nazi rallies depicted in Leni Riefenstahl films. And the chants — “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us,” among others — served notice of who these people were and what they intended to achieve.

It was a prelude to the violent horror a day later, when violence preceded a planned rally to preserve a Robert E. Lee statue and then spread through several blocks of the city. Clashes between the white nationalists and counter-protesters raged for hours as, an after-action review would conclude, law enforcement did little to intervene.

Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and civil rights advocate, was killed when 20-year-old James Alex Fields deliberately drove his car into the crowd, injuring 35 others. Fields was convicted of first-degree murder in 2018 and sentenced to life in prison.

How did Fields — born in Kentucky, living in Ohio — end up in Charlottesville as part of a white supremacist group? How did any of the people waving Nazi flags and carrying torches and shouting racial slurs come to adopt that view? What so twisted Fields that he would deliberately drive his car into a crowd of people that day?

These are among the questions that should haunt this country. Not that they are new, of course. White supremacy was once enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, codified in law and widely practiced throughout the nation, ebbing within the lifespan of people reading this today.

And there are still those who seek to restore that twisted philosophy to prominence, arguing that policies such as integration and racial tolerance and even equity programs are destroying the country. Sure, they use different words and don’t wear the Ku Klux Klan hoods they once did, but it’s easy to know a dog whistle when you hear one.

In Charlottesville five years ago, the masks were off. The faces, full of rage, were plainly visible. They flew Nazi flags, they gave Nazi salutes, they wore Nazi armbands.

It’s less clear when they lurk in the dark corners of the Internet, searching for disaffected young people alienated from society. For these potential recruits, racial equality is pitched as the problem and white supremacy is the solution. The violence and terror they spread is the means to achieve it.

It’s what drove a gunman in Charleston to kill nine Black members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church two years before Charlottesville, and what drove the shooter who opened fire at a Buffalo supermarket early this year, killing 10 Black people.

Americans should be more attuned to signs of trouble and have acquired an ear for the language of white supremacy. And there is reason to hope that more Americans will report the potential of violence when they learn of it.

But neutralizing the corrosive philosophy before it corrupts impressionable minds? That’s a daunting challenge. This anniversary reminds us we must continue efforts to confront white nationalism and other forms of extremism with vigilance and determination.

—The Virginian-Pilot Editorial Board

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