US Capitol building
Diversity, Inclusion and Equity, Government

Attack on the U.S. Capitol

January 8, 2021 |4:17 min read

A wake-up call for America

What happened this week at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., was unprecedented in its violence.

We saw livestream videos and photos of an insurgent, lawless mob of the president’s supporters storming the Capitol building, breaking windows, invading offices, damaging artifacts and putting people at risk. Five people died, including a U.S. Capitol police officer. Seeing images of members of Congress crouching under desks, locked in their chambers to protect them from the crowds and being led to safety was a reminder of how close we came to complete chaos. That the storming crowd had been encouraged to protest by the sitting president was almost inconceivable, but true. It was a wake-up call for many Americans, and for those watching around the world. We saw the fragility of democracy and its resilience. For weeks since the presidential election, the president had refused to accept the outcome or to offer congratulations to President-Elect Joseph Biden. Worse, he hammered repeatedly that the election had been stolen from him, stoked the fires of anger and hatred, and urged his followers to act on Wednesday, while Congress deliberated the certification of Electoral College votes to make Joe Biden the next president of the United States. It was a horrifying, shocking day in which the Confederate flag was resurrected once again. As night fell, the mob was dispersed, and order returned. Many questions remain, including how justice will be achieved.

Democracy depends on the peaceful, seamless transition of power. Former senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) recently wrote a moving piece in the New York Times in which he recounted his awe, upon first becoming a senator, in Jan. 2001, when Vice President Al Gore had won the popular election, and George Bush won the Electoral College and became president:

One thing I left out of my journal entry was that in affirming that his opponent, George W. Bush, would be our next president, Mr. Gore said this: ‘May God bless our new president and new vice president, and may God bless the United States of America.’

Mr. Gore’s was an act of grace that the American people had every right to expect of someone in his position, a testament to the robustness and durability of American constitutional democracy. That he was merely doing his job and discharging his responsibility to the Constitution is what made the moment both profound and ordinary.

Many acted swiftly to condemn the violence and the president’s role in it. Some members of the president’s Cabinet and team have resigned over the events this week. Facebook and Instagram have banned the president indefinitely. He initially was restricted from Twitter for 24 hours. For those who care about democracy and equity, the difference between the president’s response to largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests during spring and summer 2020 and to the unruly mob marauding on Wednesday was striking. He condemned BLM protestors and brought out massive police force in D.C., Portland and other cities. During the George Floyd protests in D.C., the president said on Twitter that no demonstrators came close to breaching the White House fence, but, “If they had, they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.” Yet, to the insurgents in D.C. Wednesday he said “We love you,” along with other words of encouragement, before finally saying they should go home.

As this terrifying week ends, many are unsettled and wondering what might happen over the next couple of weeks leading up to Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, and, in the longer term, how we can come together as a country after such high levels of division, distrust and anger have been sown at all levels. The writers and producers of the disturbing, sobering, and gut-wrenching New York Times Opinion video, “Stop Pretending ‘This Is Not Who We Are,’” argue that until Americans confront the reality that what happened this week at the Capitol – with all its violence and racism – is who we are, and who we have been, we will not make progress and become who we want to be.

With the vaccine being rolled out, and especially if momentum increases, 2021 will be different. Still, we remain stuck in the worst pandemic since 1918, and more than 365,000 Americans now have died, with cases, hospitalizations and deaths increasing in most parts of the U.S. Many in our Gillings community have suffered the losses of family members and jobs. We have been repeatedly shocked by the lack of empathy coming from the current president. When I chaired the President’s Cancer Panel (under Presidents Obama and Trump), I had the opportunity to stand next to Joe Biden and I experienced his empathy. Empathy will help, but it alone will not be sufficient to end the pandemic or heal the fissures in our democracy. There is a lot of work to do, but I am hopeful that we will leave the violence and ugliness of the present behind—not gone—but hopefully, no longer enabled. Someday, we will look back upon this period as a sad time in American history when a swamp engulfed our capital.

Public health never has been more important or relevant than it is today. We look forward to the start of classes January 19 and Inauguration Day January 20.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.