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“If you want to humble an empire it makes sense to maim its cathedrals. They are symbols of its faith, and when they crumple and burn, it tells us we are not so powerful and we can't be safe.”
Thus opened Nancy Gibbs’s epic story for Time magazine in the issue that ran days after Sept. 11, 2001.
What words could more accurately describe the scenes we all watched unfold at the U.S. Capitol this week? The seat of the People’s Branch sits underneath a dome that remains unrivaled in its distinctiveness in America’s landscape.
The legacy of American democracy lives in its walls. American democracy has been the envy of the world for centuries now, the result of a genius that’s recognized and celebrated by secular minds just as readily as religious ones. For the secular, the Capitol is the physical embodiment of the great experiment of the Founding Fathers; for the religious, that experiment was God-inspired.
As such, almost 20 years after Gibbs penned those words about maiming our cathedrals, our holiest of holies was hit.
In 2001, New York City’s Twin Towers were symbols of our excesses, our audacity and our refusal to be earthbound, giant phallic reminders of American superiority. They were situated in the financial and cultural capital of our country, and by virtue of our outsized relevance, the world’s capital as well.
The Pentagon was another symbol, a reminder of our military might.
And what was the target of the plane that was downed by its passengers in a field in Pennsylvania? It was the Capitol.
The horror of that day was unparalleled for just how completely it shook us to our collective core. It was easily recognized as terrorism before “terrorism” was the watchword it became after that day. It struck fear not just because of the lives lost and damage inflicted, but because of where those lives were lost and the damage done.
For a time, our differences were forgotten. We saw the world clearly, a single reality easily recognizable and identified for what it was.
But here we sit, two decades later, and grapple with a fractured reality where attacks and vandalism and terrorism from domestic sources is excused and argued to be something other than what we all saw it to be.
Smart people and idiots alike were unwilling to admit the morally bankrupt administration they’d enabled and grown painfully numb to over the past four years had invited and sanctioned that chaos that desecrated the most American cathedral of them all. You’re likely to have to withstand conversations that will beggar belief. I know this for a fact; I’ve interviewed many of them watching this all unfold from Wyoming (and even some who made the trip from Wyoming and were there at the Capitol).
Don’t let such rank lying and nonsensical “whataboutism” distract you from what you saw. Don’t reinvent the wheel in a search for how it could have happened. The answer is as unremarkable as the events of Wednesday weren’t all that surprising considering all we know and all we’ve seen over the past four years.
The Capitol is a symbol of our faith, in each other, in our institutions, in democracy itself. It was maimed this week, because no, we are not as powerful and safe as we ought to be.
Ten worth your time
So much incredible journalism has come out of minutes, hours, and days after a pro-Trump mob flooded the U.S. Capitol. The events are recorded in countless outlets, but the immediacy of the experiences chronicled in this piece from various New York Times journalists is a stark reminder, in case any was needed, that this was a terrorist event. You can listen to an audio account that covers much of the same ground, but adds the intimacy and power of audio.
“Three senior GOP aides piled furniture against the door and tried to move stealthily, worried that the intruders would discover them inside. In waves, the door to the hall heaved as rioters punched and kicked it. The crowd yelled ‘Stop the steal!’ Some chanted menacingly, referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: ‘Where’s Nancy? Where’s Nancy?’” Read more from a Washington Post account of the chaos inside the Capitol.
BuzzFeed News spoke with two Black Capitol police officers who describe the close association between the pro-Trump mob and white supramcist groups that only have strengthened since the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville back in 2017.
One of the most galling aspects of the disingenuous push by Trump supporters and some Republican lawmakers that the breach of the Capitol was really perpetrated by Antifa insurgents hellbent on a “false flag” operation is just how thoroughly it was documented by those pro-Trump mob members. They filmed themselves, livestreamed themselves, identified themselves, smug and smiling and seemingly triumphant, on the very devices and services we take for granted. WIRED tells the story of the push to keep that digital evidence alive, to archive it or save it for posterity’s sake, because as the president’s removal from Twitter reminded us, if you write your story on such services, one such be mindful that it’s disappearing ink. Once Twitter permanently banned President Trump, there went our record of his real-time thoughts, which like them or not, were more accessible than just about any other politician’s thoughts ever will be. Wired tracking digital
This story from The Atlantic is spot-on for so many reasons. Not the least of which is the hypocrisy it points out. When I spoke with Wyomingites who were in D.C. for President Trump’s rally and who’d made the march from the White House to the Capitol along with thousands of others, they were disappointed that the whole purpose of their trip — the rally to support President Trump and his continued flailing about unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud — had been largely ignored because of the rioting inside the Capitol. It wasn’t that the Wyomingites didn’t understand why that was the case, but they simply lamented it, essentially downplaying it by saying a few bad apples shouldn’t spoil the whole bunch. That irony is summarized beautifully by the photo at the heart of this article, that of a man striding through the Capitol with a giant Confederate battle flag on his shoulder. The flag debate has long had those arguing that it stands for Southern heritage and pride, not racism, no matter what the Confederacy’s close relationship to the institution of slavery might be. Which always begs the question: Let’s suppose that’s true for a moment; then why is it that so many who definitely do hoist a flag in the name of white supremacy choose THAT one? And once again, these flag supporters essentially say that a few bad apples shouldn’t spoil the whole bunch. One more example now, and let’s take it back to 9/11 and its aftermath when we discovered that those who hijacked the planes and planned the attacks were fundamentalist extremist practitioners of Islam. The policy of so many became, implicitly: A few bad apples DO spoil the whole bunch. President Trump was one of these, as his long-fought battle to impose a “Muslim ban” was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court. It made no difference to Trump that Islam is the second-most popular religion in the world, with more than a billion adherents. The same logic animated President Trump’s immigration policy with respect to the U.S./Mexico border; he announced it the same day as his candidacy after riding down that golden escalator and accused immigrants from Mexico as being “murderers and rapists.” The pro-Trump mob undoubtedly supported such xenophobia and were more than happy to let a few bad actors fully and completely define a group. Until it was applied to them.
Before an attempted coup happened before our eyes, live on TV, this roundup of suggestions were going to be some of my favorite stories from the end of 2020. The story of the year (in more ways than one): “The Plague Year” by Lawrence Wright, published in The New Yorker. His 31,000-word account of the COVID-19 pandemic is a must-read. Its scope is massive, its words are deft, and its ultimate purpose is thus: It didn’t have to be this way; it was an institutional failing of epic proportions, and the institution that failed was America. For more Wright content, enjoy this Pressbox podcast episode from May when he discussed his novel, The End of October, about a pandemic and an Anthony Fauci-like protagonist trying to fix things released last year. It wasn’t supposed to be prophecy.
Wright’s story was so important it got a Cliff Notes treatment in a completely different publication: The Washington Post’s “My Takeaways from ‘The Plague Year.’” The article ran as the only feature in the magazine; not quite the same as its John Hersey Hiroshima treatment, but close. It was reported by the Times that Wright had actually turned in a draft that was 76,000 words, and after reading the whole thing, I mourn for those cut 45,000 words.
Speaking of the Post, I was captivated by this John le Carré remembrance and it motivated me to finally read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Also listen to these two Fresh Air interviews with the man and appreciate what we’ve lost.
Ann Patchett told a story in Harper’s that began with a restless night’s reading of Tom Hanks’s book Uncommon Type and the resulting friendship not with the author but with his assistant, Sooki. This story has everything: insight into Patchett’s mind as a novelist, Southern hospitality in Nashville, the surprises of new people, and resiliency during cancer treatments.
Shortly before the end of the year, I read an oral history in the pages of The New Republic that I probably could have written. It was an examination of the boom-and-bust lives in Rock Springs, Wyoming. It is the same existence that I’m living now 200-plus miles away in Gillette, another town defined by booms and busts. It’s a tale of coal and oil and natural gas, fast money, hard work, and even harder living.
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