Opinion

Actually, this is who we are

The insurrection at the Capitol is part of a long history of American violence

As pro-Trump insurgents stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, you heard the same refrain from commentators and elected officials over and over again: that this isn't the kind of thing that happens in America, that this looked like the situation in some war-torn foreign country, that we're better than this.

"The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect the true America," President-elect Joe Biden said in a nationally televised speech. "This is not who we are."

Yes it is.

American politicians, like Joe Biden, like to define us in terms of our collective national ideals, and that is nice — it can encourage us to be our best selves, but it also isn't the full truth. You are what you do, and right now America as a nation is at least partly defined less by lofty words about freedom and more by the fact that a group of angry white men, encouraged by the president of the United States, invaded the seat of our democratic republic in order to prevent an election from coming to fruition.

This is what happens when opportunists like Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) encourage people to accept the lie that the election was stolen from them. This is what happens when so-called leaders like Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) dispute the very notion of American democracy. And this is what happens when most Republicans acquiesce to the ascendancy of a narcissist and con man like Donald Trump, quietly accepting four years of outrages while anonymously whispering mild criticisms to reporters.

This is what has happened. This is who we are.

And this didn't just happen suddenly. Maybe the United States has a long, enviable streak — now broken — of peaceful transfers of power, but that is only true at the White House level. My home state, Kansas, entered the Union only after a bloody struggle over whether slavery would be permitted here (and by clearing the land of its original inhabitants). That led to the Civil War, which we're still arguing about today. The end of Reconstruction resulted in the killings and oppression of Black people across the South. In 1898, a mob of white supremacists overthrew the government of Wilmington, North Carolina, and massacred many citizens. Lynch justice ruled vast stretches of America for much of the 20th century, enabled by a Congress that took decades to pass meaningful Civil Rights legislation. Bull Connor used fire hoses on protesters. John Lewis was beaten at Selma. Timothy McVeigh slaughtered civilians and children with his bomb in Oklahoma City.

Politicians up to and including the current president have sometimes talked glibly of "Second Amendment remedies" to political developments they didn't like. In the last few months, armed demonstrators have created chaos in the state capitols of Oregon and Michigan. Even now, one of the major justifications for letting our children be shot in their schools is that Americans need assault rifles so they can exercise their choice of overthrowing the government if the ballot proves insufficient.

Yes, we won World War II and the Cold War and passed the Civil Rights Act eventually. That's part of who we are, too.

What happened on Wednesday, though, is part of a long history of violence, the threat of violence and disregard for democracy — often but not always by white racists — that has always been part of our national story. It wasn't as bloody as some of that history, thankfully, but it is connected. This is who we are, at least to some extent.

Forgive my cynicism and anger. I, too, want this country to live up to its highest espoused ideals, and despair when it doesn't. The right way to do that is not to pretend we are collectively angelic, but to acknowledge and live with the hard truths that we don't always — or often enough — live up to our standards. Wednesday's insurrection may not represent the entirety of America, but it is enough of us to have momentarily brought the workings of our electoral process to a halt. We don't repel this by being surprised every time it happens, or acting like it is alien to us. The insurrectionists are part of us. It isn't very pretty, but we can't afford to turn away. This is who we are.

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