The crack that reveals the darkness inside us
If you haven’t already, pick up the New York Times and read its front- page story, “90 Seconds of Rage on the Capitol Steps.” It’s a stunning account of just one of many assaults that took place on January 6, when the mob of Trump supporters launched an attack on the Congress with the intention of overturning the election and stopping the peaceful transfer of power to its winner, Joe Biden. In several thousand words, the Times tells the story of seven men who have been charged with assaulting Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police officers tasked with defending the Capitol building.
The Times describes the seven men as representing “a group certain to have powerful sway in the nation’s tortured politics to come: whiter, slightly older and less likely than the general voting population to live in a city or be college-educated…and described in superlatives by relatives and friends: perfect neighbor, devout churchgoer, attentive father, good guy.”
There was a fencing contractor from Georgia; a businessman from Kentucky; a truck driver from Arkansas; a geophysicist from Colorado; a heavy machine operator from Michigan; a former Marine from Pennsylvania; a sheriff’s deputy from Tennessee. The Times describes them as coming “from places where people tend to fear the replacement of their ethnic and cultural dominance by immigrants, and adhere to the false belief that the 2020 election was stolen.” The seven men are “now bound together by federal prosecutors as co-defendants in an indictment charging them with myriad felonies.”
All are charged with assaulting police officers on the Capitol steps. One was the man seen in multiple videos using a metal pole holding the American flag to repeatedly hit a police officer. Another, the ex-Marine, wore a Trump t-shirt with the logo: “PTSD: Pretty Tired of Stupid Democrats.” Another wore a crash helmet and was “carrying a backpack containing a two-way radio, an earpiece and a bundle of zip-ties.” Yet another wore “a red MAGA hat, reflective sunglasses and black gloves with metal knuckles.”
All were described by friends, neighbors, and co-workers as what you might call ordinary American men. Two of them traveled to Washington D.C. on impulse at the last minute. Only one was wearing anything identifying himself as part of a right-wing extremist group: the now-former sheriff’s deputy wore a patch from the “Three Percenters,” a group identified by the Anti-Defamation League as part of the antigovernment militia movement. Two were described by friends and associates as regular volunteers at their local churches.
Friends and relatives described several of the men as going through a change after hardships in their personal lives like a divorce or a business setback. Others were described as being transformed by Trump’s loss of the election. A friend of one man said he became enthralled by conspiracy theories after the election. “He got all twisted up. He just spent too much time listening to lies. He really, really believed.”
Carefully analyzed video evidence of the 90 seconds on the Capitol steps shows some extraordinary violence committed by these church-going family men, businessmen and one law-enforcement officer. Acting sometimes alone and sometimes in concert with one another, they knocked Metropolitan Police officers to the ground, stomped them, dragged them down the steps, stole a police baton from one officer and pressed it against his neck, used the flagpole to repeatedly strike a prostrate and defenseless officer. According to the Times, the rioter with the American flag was “filmed pointing at the Capitol and saying, ‘Death’s the only remedy for what’s in that building,’ and ‘Everybody in there is a treasonous traitor.’”
The three reporters from the Times, Dan Barry, Alan Feuer and Matthew Rosenberg, appear to have spent weeks, or even months going through the videos and seeking interviews with friends and associates of the seven men charged with multiple felonies in the attacks on police officers and the Capitol itself. The Times reports that several of the men charged went to lengths to destroy evidence linking themselves to the attacks. In court appearances, they have attempted to describe the acts they are seen committing on video as attempts to aid officers rather than assault them. Only man one is described as remorseful, but his remorse was not echoed by a close friend who the Times said tried to defend him by attributing the violence at the Capitol to Black Lives Matter, “the spearhead of breaking into the building,” which the Times described flatly as “an assertion not based in fact.”
The House committee investigating the facts of what happened on January 6 is bound to reveal evidence of even more crimes. Already there have been more than 600 arrests made in connection with the assault on the Capitol. Nearly 25 percent have been charged with assaulting or interfering with police officers. The Times notes, however, that “The most violent on Jan. 6, it seems, were the most ordinary — a slice of the Trump faithful.”
Which should give us pause…or maybe not. Is it really surprising that these seemingly “normal” fellow citizens would commit such violent crimes in support of a man like Donald Trump and the lies he has been pushing about the election he lost by seven million votes?
I’ve spent time giving this question some thought, and I’ve decided that I don’t find it surprising at all. I grew up on Army posts located in the largely rural South and Midwest. I went to school with boys who could be the fathers of the men described in the Times article. I spent years reporting stories from areas of the country where hostility to outsiders and “others” no matter how you describe them – Black, gay, immigrants, the political opposition – was and still is palpable, part of the culture, part of the air they breathe.
For decades these fellow citizens of ours have been out there, but they weren’t raising their hands and saying, in effect, here I am and this is what I believe. They were of course voting that way, but we weren’t hearing from them as a movement. Some of them were racists and many opposed abortion and believed that gay people shouldn’t have the same rights as the rest of us and that immigrants should “go back to where they came from.” But they didn’t seem to be a critical mass of the population until Trump came along and gave voice to their prejudices and because he did that for them, they elected him in 2016.
You could accurately describe “Trumpism” and the beliefs of those who elected him president as an underbelly of American politics that has always been there. People like George Wallace, to take only one example, had what seemed at the time to be surprisingly large support, and politicians like Nixon were clever enough to use it for the Republican party and their own political ambitions.
It’s been there all along, but I guess what’s clarifying about the Times story today is seeing the thing that has always been among us out in the open and given such dramatic shape. Yet reading the story left me feeling split. Part of me wishes that we could go back to the way it was before Trump, when the dark underbelly was out there but only occasionally or partially visible. But the other part of me is glad that it’s come to this. We have a clearer picture of who we are and who we have always been. Even some of our heroes, like Eric Clapton and Van Morrison, have been shown to have ugly beliefs that were always there but not not in our faces. And of course many politicians have been exposed as the racists and fascists we always suspected they were.
It’s hard to think of it this way, but I think ultimately the assault on the Capitol will turn out to be a good thing for us because it revealed a part of this country that we needed to see. January 6, I believe, will turn out to be the opposite of that wonderful lyric of Leonard Cohen -- not the crack in everything that lets the light in, but the crack in the country that lets us see the darkness inside. It’s the monstrous part of who we are, but we’ll never be able to deal with it unless we can gather ourselves together and shine a light into the darkness and put what’s in there on the run.
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