When I had an office and a desk at the newspaper building, and I would go in to do work from there, unlike now when everything is sent electronically, I would sometimes play tour guide for the elementary school classrooms that came in on field trips. One of the things I would show them were the hardbound volumes of old newspapers going back 75 years.
I would pick a kid and ask, 'When were you born?' Then I would turn to the paper that was published closest to that date to show what was happening in the town at that time. My editor said, "That’s one of the reasons newspapers are important; they provide an historical record of the events that take place."
With that in mind, I find it hard — on this first Thursday of 2021, my first deadline of the 25th year of this column — to write about anything other than the attack on the United States Capitol by thousands of angry American citizens. I note the date, Jan. 6, 2021, that it may be registered alongside Dec. 7, 1941, Sept. 11, 2001, Nov. 22, 1963, and other infamous dates in U.S. history (including Aug. 24, 1814, April 12, 1861, and April 15, 1865).
They came from all over the country, wearing hats and waving flags emblazoned with the name of the 45th president, to protest an election they believed, and he claimed, was fraudulent, even though election officials from every state and from both parties, as well as the workers in the trenches, and every court in which a legal challenge was filed, vouched for the integrity of the results. They came because they believed their freedoms and rights had been whittled away and confiscated, and because they’d grown tired of rules regarding public health and safety in the time of a pandemic.
“We’ve had enough,” roared the president. “We will march to the Capitol and fight to save America!” He didn’t. They did (or that’s how they saw it).
Following a course set in motion by Lincoln before he was assassinated, moderate Republicans and Democrats from both sides believed that it was the responsibility of the government to take actions and put forth messages that would promote unity. They believed that if these things were done, then gradually the people of the nation would adopt an attitude of national unity.
The TV news showed the insurgents scaling walls, breaking through doors and windows, and roaming the halls and offices of Congress wielding flags of secession and rebellion. They said the mob breached the security force, but from what I could tell, there was no security force there — really — to stop them from just walking in.
(It recalled the scene from "The Godfather" in which Michael goes to the hospital and says to the nurse, "Where are the men who are supposed to be guarding my father?" Strings had been pulled so that the protectors wouldn’t be there to thwart the bad guys. I couldn’t help but wonder if similar arrangements hadn’t been made to disrupt congressional proceedings certifying the vote.)
Listening to the president’s allies later condemn the attack reminded me of the Dylan song, “Who Killed Davey Moore,” in which the various players refuse to accept responsibility for the part they played in the death of a prizefighter. “Not I,” said the referee, who didn’t want to get booed for stopping the fight. “Not me,” said the manager, the promoter, the sportswriter and the other boxer, and “not us,” said the crowd.
Not I, said the president’s lawyer, who suggested “a trial by combat,” or his son who implored them to “fight” for his father, or the snivelly senator consumed by ambition, who compared the demonstrators to the patriots at Bunker Hill and Valley Forge, or the 138 House members and seven senators who pledged and later voted to contest the election results.
The riot on Capitol Hill was disgusting but not surprising.
Commentators and elected leaders speaking in the aftermath insisted, “This is not who we are as Americans,” but when you contrast how we repeatedly deal with black and brown-skinned dissenters with how this white-skinned mob was handled, you have to consider — maybe this is who we are.
That’s what they mean by systemic.
And yet, there’s still the American ideal of freedom, justice and equality for all. Lincoln said that it requires us as individuals to strive for honesty, integrity, command of the facts, common sense and service to the greater good.