IT was a side of America few could have imagined. As lawmakers were meeting in the Capitol — the seat of US democracy — to formally endorse the victory of President-elect Joe Biden, supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the building, broke into the premises, vandalised offices, and briefly occupied the main floor of the house itself. Shockingly, the police stood by and abstained from using force to block the assailants from gaining entry into the building.
America was aghast. So was the world. Live images beamed across the planet showed the unruly mob scaling walls, breaking down barriers, and even occupying the chair of the speaker. Many commentators on American television described the attack as an attempted coup — an unthinkable episode for a democracy as grounded and established as America’s. Yet the unthinkable was unfolding live on TV and there was little the world’s oldest democracy could do to protect itself from itself. Anarchy had come to America.
In the end the coup did not happen. However, America stands damaged. The images from this fateful day — delirious, abusive and aggressive men and women wrapped in stars and stripes with some donning horned Viking helmets — will remain seared in the collective American conscience for a very long time. They will remind Americans that in the arena of democratic values and beliefs, they too are mere mortals and can be felled by one swing of their own sword. These images will also haunt Americans every time they imagine themselves perched on a ‘shining city on the hill’ looking down upon a messy world that is unable, unwilling or unworthy to carry the burden of democracy. Today this burden weighs heavy on America’s shoulders.
Equally significantly, America will now struggle to wield the moral authority it has always used in order to weaponise its foreign policy. How will American leaders now lecture the world on high-minded values wrapped in holier-than-thou rhetoric and how will the world keep a straight face while enduring such lectures? Americans may want to prepare themselves for the sneers that will keep coming their way for a very long time.
Beyond these impending agonies lies a deeper wound that is now festering inside America’s body politic; a wound that bled out the hate, vitriol and anger on display at the Capitol this Wednesday. America will need to heal itself before it attempts to heal the planet. United States today is a troubled society afflicted with a social, political and cultural sickness that has seeped deep into its folds during the last four Trump years. The new president will need to acknowledge it, diagnose it and then start to heal it. It will take a long time, but the world will wait because for all its ailments and psychological problems, America still matters to the world. Just a bit less so now.
Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2021