Words mean something. Words can inspire, educate, call to action, or incite to violence. When those words come from the nation’s elected leader, we rightly should expect some higher level of inspiration or education reflecting long-held democratic values. Last Wednesday, that’s not what anyone heard from Mr. Trump and his cohorts, and the result was a shocking mob assault on the citadel of our democracy, live and in color on screens large and small. No matter the size of the screen, the indelible images of thousands of people, surging, nearly unfettered, into the Capitol Building, and occupying the House and Senate Chambers, where duly elected members had been speaking not an hour before, are burned forever into our national psyche.
The last time there was such an assault on the Capitol Building was more than 200 years ago, in 1814, and the mob was British soldiers, at the behest of the English monarch, who burned much of the building and its artifacts. The only records of that siege are in written form, and a few drawings done post-fire. There was no CNN or MSNBC, no cell-phone videos by the soldiers, gloating and taking selfies to send home. The damage this time was internal, and all the more appalling because it was fomented by the sitting President of the United States, a siege seemingly blessed by one branch of our democratic government against another branch. It took 12 years to rebuild the Capitol after the British burned it; I hope it won’t take another 12 years to rebuild the faith, trust, and respect that were damaged on Jan. 6.
My professional career began on Capitol Hill, where I spent nearly 20 years working for two Senators and a member of the House of Representatives. It was a different time, when most of the Capitol Hill police were college students, appointed to the force via a long-gone patronage system. They were issued weapons, but no ammunition (!), and mostly greeted visitors at the entrances to the various buildings, directing them to their elected officials’ offices, usually to pick up the small cards that paved entry into the Capitol galleries. In those days, the Capitol complex, as designed, was open to all — no staff ID badges, no passing through screening mechanisms to get into the buildings, nothing off-limits to photographs, except on the House and Senate Floors. Following the 1968 riots, the force began to professionalize, and security measures increased. Obviously, not enough on Wednesday.
In disgust and horror, a lot of words have been tossed about — attempted coup? Insurrection? Sedition? Breaking and entering? Rebellion? Treason? Patriots? While the ultimate charges and adjudication will be the responsibility of the judicial system, what happened last Wednesday was not an attempted coup. Many Fairfax County residents have been stationed in places that experienced a true coup d’etat; this was not that. Sudden, violent, and illegal activity yes, but it would be more than a stretch that defines it as a coup.
Perhaps more sobering is the fact that many in the mob considered themselves patriots, bent on saving “their” country by following the vitriol that spewed from Mr. Trump, his sons, and Mr. Guiliani. Patriotism — devotion to and vigorous support for one’s country — is one of the principles of our democratic system, expected of, or at least encouraged for, all its citizens. Voting, supporting the rule of law, respecting opinions different than your own — all are better indications of the true underpinnings, and practice, of patriotism than all the flags propped behind Mr. Trump.
As community dialogues about equity, social injustice, and implementation of OneFairfax continue, another important subject — patriotism — needs to be added to the conversation. It may be a tough discussion, but will be vital to the future of the treasured democratic experiment that is the United States of America.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.