Flashbacks of Standing in the Ruins: It Can Happen Here

As I watched the mob on television ascend the steps of the U.S. Capitol in real time, my body began to shake and I felt a rush of adrenalin. It was if I was experiencing a chill.

This shuddering continued for several minutes as the ragtag crowd breached the doors of the Capitol and the cameras showed them walking through Statuary Hall carrying metal flagpoles and other paraphernalia.

I began to have flashbacks of experiences I’ve had over several years of covering humanitarian response in the aftermath of social strife, or worse, genocide, in places where civil society came apart, governments fell and destructive rioting left substantial institutional buildings in ruins and brought chaos to the lives of people.

I have stood in the ransacked skeleton of the national museum in Mogadishu, Somalia; in the burned out shell of the central bank in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; in bullet-pocked school buildings around Monrovia, Liberia. And I have walked through haunting, abandoned, burned-out villages in the  Mozambique bush–all places where civil strife led to violence, destruction and death.

These places are distant from the U.S. Capitol. They are places that we could too easily dismiss as so different from our own civil society that they have little meaning or effect on how we view our own society.

In short, places whose experiences we can rationalize away by saying it can’t happen here. 

Until it was happening here. On live TV. 

Historian Anne Applebaum writes in her book The Twilight of Democracy that “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.” (P.14)

It can be argued that each of the situations I have cited above occurred in unique social contexts. And therefore that we should not compare the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to these disparate examples.

My response is that despite different social contexts authoritarianism has common roots and that dismissing these parallels risks acquiescing to dangerous complacence–the “it can’t happen here syndrome.”

It can. It has. It is happening here.

It’s also being said that the U.S. is a nation of laws and that the judiciary has held under the assault of an authoritarian president and his political sycophants in the legislature and elsewhere. True enough. For the moment. 

The discord and division that has been sown will not simply dissolve after this authoritarian has left the building. Its seeds have taken root and my experiences in fallen states tell me that once unleashed chaos has its own momentum and takes its own course. It cannot be controlled, even by those who introduce chaos for manipulative purposes.

The final destination of unchecked social chaos is anarchy.

I hear some voices calling for quick reconciliation to bring “healing” and “unity” to a polarized nation. It’s more than a little late for that now. I would argue there can be no reconciliation with falsehood.

The threat to democracy in the U.S. did not end when the rioters left the Capitol. It continues, perhaps even more insidiously now than before.

The process of reconciliation will be long and difficult. It will take years, not days.

If we are to recover our moral bearings it will take the just application of the law, sustained truth telling, honesty about racism in this country’s history, a new vision of this nation as a multicultural democracy and prophetic leaders who speak unpleasant but essential truth. And more.

The conservative writer David Crum writes in The Atlantic: “There is no redemption without repentance. There is no repentance without accountability. There is no accountability without consequences.”

As I write, there have been no consequences for the politicians who inspired the insurrection. A few of the hundreds of rioters have been arrested but many more walked away. The political sycophants continued their lies and the religious sycophants who gave moral cover to the violence (and who have who have spewed racism, misogyny, gender bias and sexism for the past several years in the guise of religious faith) receded to their communities and continued to preach their false religion of Christian nationalism.

Washington Post journalist Jennifer Rubin reduces the moral imperative to clear, simple actions: “What would be unifying at this point would be a unanimous vote on Trump’s impeachment and removal, followed by expulsion from Congress of the primary instigators of the bad-faith objections to the election. The only basis for unity is reaffirmation of the truth and banishment of the seditionists.”

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