It’s not a one-off

Published January 15, 2021
The writer is an analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area.
The writer is an analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area.

FOR my generation of Americans, which came of age in the 1990s, the sacking of the US Capitol is incredibly difficult to process.

And that’s because it’s so markedly different from other horrific tragedies on US soil during our lifetimes — the kind of unforgettable events that we remember exactly where we were when they happened.

This isn’t to minimise the magnitude of those other events. Indeed, the Challenger explosion was more sudden. The Oklahoma City bombings, the Columbine school shooting, 9/11, and other terrorist attacks were much deadlier. The Washington, D.C. area sniper attacks played out over a longer period. And so on.

But there’s something uniquely unsettling about that dark day when terrorists besieged the ‘People’s House’, America’s grandest symbol of democracy.

This is an American tragedy like no other.

Those earlier tragedies gave way to a reassuringly predictable pattern: Americans were united in their grief, top leaders delivered soothing words, and the country moved on. We accepted those tragedies for what they were: horrific but one-off events.

To be sure, in some cases, there were deleterious long-term effects; 9/11 spawned new surveillance policies, increased Islamophobia, and produced a militarised foreign policy that strained the US economy. But 9/11 impacts were also dispersed overseas: US forces entered Afghanistan, and a costly and deadly global war on terror ensued and endured.

America hasn’t come together after the insurrectionists stormed the Capitol. Sure, there’s been bipartisan condemnation from top leaders, and the country has expressed its collective outrage. And yet, scores of insurrectionists are proud, not ashamed, of their shameful act. They have many supporters among the nearly 75 million people who in November voted for the man who inspired the insurrection. And then there are the dozens of elected officials who, just hours after the worst assault on US democracy in decades, voted against the certification of the election result, thereby endorsing the view that Joe Biden stole the election — the very lie that unleashed the assault.

Additionally, the Capitol siege can’t simply be shrugged off as an isolated one-off. In the past, we mourned and moved on. This time we must confront a mushrooming crisis that may lead to similar tragedies — and soon.

Nonsense, some Americans may retort. In the end, our democratic system and institutions prevailed: Congress certified the election result, and the true winner will take office. Our democracy is resilient. It shall persevere.

But celebrating resilience is often a proxy for complacency. It’s a crutch that allows us to reassure ourselves that we are survivors, but that also enables us to conveniently overlook the fact that the fundamental problem hasn’t been addressed. And that problem is that America remains dangerously divided, with the threat of future political violence all too real.

The mob that breached the Capitol is galvanised because it achieved its mission. It has no reason not to stage future attacks. Those posting on far-right online forums are already vowing to strike again, and soon. Given that they acted on their earlier threats to target the Capitol, it would be naive to dismiss such boasts as bluffs.

Some Americans — especially those comfortably ensconced in liberal enclaves on both coasts, or in university towns — may depict these extremists as benighted bumpkins. That’s dead wrong. According to initial investigations, the Capitol was stormed by a diverse demographic that includes police officers, military veterans, state lawmakers, tech firm CEOs, and even Olympic athletes.

This suggests that far-right American militants have the brains, the numbers, the capital, the weaponry, and the overall capacity to carry out orchestrated attacks against government facilities in Washington and beyond — not to mention against people of colour, religious minorities, and other targets of their unbridled hate.

They’ll be further triggered given that soon the White House and both chambers of Congress will be controlled by Democrats. President-elect Biden is a leader willing to reach across the political aisle, but he’s understandably not going to make concessions to the insurrectionists or their ilk.

This means that America can’t rule out the possibility of a small but real anti-government insurgency — one fuelled by hate and lies, and animated by a desire to target a government that it deems illegitimate.

For years, I’ve studied insurgencies in South Asia. It’s sobering that I’m now contemplating the possibility of such a movement emerging in America.

But it’s also a wake up call.

What happened on Jan 6 was a uniquely American tragedy. Only when we own it as such can the country start picking up the pieces and begin a long and fraught healing process.

The writer is an analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area.

Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2021

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