THERE WERE CROWDS and explosions the last time I was at the Capitol of the United States. It was nearly 40 years ago. I kept a tight grip on our youngest daughter, who sat on my shoulders. Below us were people everywhere we looked stretching past the Washington Monument, the Reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial. Our daughter learned a new expression that night from a boy nearby, a voice in the crowd but no face we could see: “Holy guacamole!”
He repeated the phrase with each fusillade of the annual July Fourth fireworks on the National Mall. Soon enough I heard the expression echo from over my right ear. Once again people of America were celebrating themselves and their country. Hundreds of thousands gathered in a space that belonged to them. And then they left. We walked home. It was 10 blocks away but I never took the official tour of the Capitol.
What I saw on TV and online news streams last week was not a building or a country that looked familiar. The action sequences were framed in the dimensions of smart-phone video. They looked like scenes from an amateur movie where angry monkeys escape their cages. But the cast last week wasn’t monkeys, it was a mob—a term reserved for humans who attack other humans for no good reason.
We’ve all seen how the mob broke into the Capitol and threatened lawmakers and staff. Their actions led to death, injury and the spread of a serious illness. We have yet to see the cost to repair and restore the physical damage they did, though we can be sure the bill will go to us taxpayers. The injury to our identity as a nation can’t be computed.
The members of the mob, mostly white males, looked like guys I would know. Maybe like I looked a long time ago. I have no one specific in mind. Washington, DC, is a long drive from Columbia County. Were members of the mob taking a sick day from their jobs? That’s their business. Attending a rally, especially one where the president speaks, is a freedom protected by the Constitution.
In this issue we publish a statement signed by a bipartisan roster of 37 local leaders, most of them elected officials. They describe the rioting and intimidation by the mob at the Capitol as “a shameful activity” that cannot be condoned.
There’s no mention of the presidential race and its aftermath in the statement. Joe Biden won Columbia County with over 58% of the vote compared with 41% for Donald Trump. But at least until this week, there have been a small number of lawn signs around the county that read: “Stop the Steal,” an endorsement of the lies the president repeats to this day when he claims, without proof, that “voter fraud” caused him to lose the election.
The signs by themselves aren’t the problem; what the signs represent is. That’s because there was something stolen from us all by the mob’s insurrection at the Capitol. Who were the victims? The people who were taught to dismiss the facts and the safeguards of our voting systems. Forget for a moment about the whole country. If the election was a massive hoax, does that include Columbia County? Did you ask to observe the count?
The victims are also all who understand that fair elections are the mechanism that allow democracy to survive. The mob assaulted that basic assumption in the ugliest possible way. The mob did not strengthen freedom or justice, but other mobs may now feel emboldened to outdo what happened last week.
There’s another way in which the public suffers from the mob. There’s new security at the Capitol, new fences on the mall. All of it and more are undoubtedly needed. Much of it will restrict the ability of the public to experience the physical heart of our democracy. In that sense the mob has been successful in weakening the bond between the government and the governed.
Precious things were stolen in the aftermath of this election. It was the mob that stole them.