We are being conditioned to distrust one another. The message of fear that has been building steadily over five years has now reached new and dangerous levels, breaking through natural barriers of resistance in the weeks since the horrific and tragic events of January 6th.
From the basket of deplorables to the compulsion to further twist the already twisted words and policies of President Trump, the message has been clear: those people who oppose us, “they’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.” We became comfortable applying labels once reserved for fringe extremists (“the 11,000”) first to the “11 million” and ultimately to the 74 million. The constant drip of “newsworthy events” captured on cell phone videos and a steady stream of tweets and retweets have reinforced the message.
All of the above is dangerous enough in its own right; but to borrow some 2020 imagery, the invisible threat of the past three weeks is exponentially more dangerous. At the highest levels of government, leaders of Congress (nominal and effective) speak openly of fearing for their safety, and for their very lives, feeling threatened by other members of Congress and the U.S. military assigned to protect the Capitol. Their fear may be the result of lingering shock or PTSD from January 6, it may be the result of reaching a breaking point (“the last straw”), it may be a political calculation, it may be real and justified, or it may be some combination of all of the above. I don’t really know the reason; but whatever the reason, the response is unacceptable.
We simply cannot begin to accept as “normal” a country with metal detectors on the House floor, offices being moved to protect representatives from their colleagues, congresspersons accusing their colleagues of attempting to assassinate them or in aiding and abetting a plot to overthrow the government. We simply cannot accept, barely blinking, the idea of permanently ringing the Capitol with an impenetrable security fence or of assigning the military to Washington, DC for months at a time – to protect Americans and America from other Americans. A House divided against itself cannot stand.
Yes, there are fringe extremist groups (of all kinds) plotting to do horrible things every day. There always have been. The FBI and other agencies, however, do a pretty good job of keeping their eye on them. That’s why it is much more common to hear that the FBI has foiled a plot than that one has been carried out. Yes, there are whack jobs with outlandish views elected to local, state, and federal offices. There always have been. That’s all part of democracy. They rarely have attacked each other physically. And yes, there has even been a personal dispute between government officials that rose to the level of a duel and murder. The fragile democracy survives.
My first memory of an event outside of my own personal experience is the afternoon that President Kennedy was assassinated and the weekend that followed. I was four years old, and those memories are mostly of the impact of the events on my parents rather than on the events themselves. A few years later, as my father was washing up after dinner to go take the comprehensive exams for his master’s degree, I was standing at the bathroom door telling him that the man on the radio just said someone named Martin Luther King had been killed in Memphis. Two months later, on the day of his graduation, we watched on TV as the train carried Bobby Kennedy’s body from New York City to Washington, DC. George Wallace was shot running for president. There were assassination attempts on Presidents Ford and Reagan.
I grew up hearing reports of the Weather Underground, and the whole world was watching the Chicago Seven. I didn’t need the internet for conspiracy theories involving the government. We had the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. I had also seen a bootleg copy of the Zapruder film and had a shelf full of books about the Kennedy assassination. I couldn’t sleep for days while reading David Lifton’s Best Evidence.
Even after all of that, however, in October 1981, as I watched Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat gunned down by a military assassination squad, one of my first thoughts was never in America. And I still have to believe, never in America.
I have to believe that all Americans of good will reject extremism of any kind. I have to believe that members of Congress believe that there is room enough for both themselves and the people in the “other basket” –
“people who feel the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures; and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from… Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.” (HRC)
We know the dangers of demanding purity of thought and the cumulative effects of years of rhetoric painting opponents as subhuman; and we must never forget.
We do have to fear fear itself; and, we also have to believe that America and Americans will once again overcome it.