Lessons from the D.C. riot

Written by Derek Monson

January 8, 2021

The riots in D.C. and storming of the U.S. Capitol Building – not to mention the four resulting deaths (as of this writing) – were tragic and unnecessary. They soured the hope and optimism of a new year.

But, it is important to keep the events of recent days in proper perspective – to recognize what they are and what they are not. History and calm reflection reveal that the rioting and storming of the Capitol Building: 1) were neither unique nor unprecedented, and 2) are a worrisome sign that fundamental issues exist in our system of government – issues that can and must be addressed.

Neither unique, nor unprecedented

There are many instances of riots and violence which have occurred around or inside the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. To borrow from AEI scholar Yuval Levin’s recent analysis of the riots:

The riot itself is no threat to the stability of our republic. The Capitol Building has seen more than its share of violence and trouble over the years. The British famously set parts of it on fire in the War of 1812. It faced intense crowds of rioters several times in the 19th century, and many times in the 20th. Puerto Rican nationalists fired guns from the House gallery in 1954, injuring several members. Vietnam War protesters set off a bomb on the Senate side in 1971.

 

In July of 1998, while I was working in the building as a young staffer myself, a gunman made it past the security checkpoint at the entrance and tried to rush the office of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. The Capitol Police managed to stop him before he reached his target, but not before he killed two courageous officers—Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson. The Capitol always lives shadowed by these attacks, and by the ever-present knowledge of the threats it faces. But it has endured them all and gone on with the people’s work. It won’t be shaken.

Of course, just because a terrible thing has happened before does not make the violent storming of the Capitol this week any less terrible. But it is a source of hope for the future that events such as these have happened at various times in the history of our nation, and we have not only survived but grown and even thrived afterwards.

Worrisome sign

Even though the historical facts show that occasional violence and riots in our nation’s capital is not unique, they remain something to worry about. They are a signal that fundamental aspects of our civic institutions and system of government are at stake.

One constitutional law professor, comparing the examples of this week and actions taken to ratify the United States Constitution, put it this way:

World history contains images of regime change that involve the violent storming of government buildings; our own national history involves regime change achieved through hardball that looks more like what happened in Harrisburg. We are now experiencing both of those things simultaneously, and not by coincidence. It’s precisely when we no longer agree that the system we have is worth preserving that people are most willing to do all sorts of things—things that seem crazy in normal times—to have their views prevail. The lesson of 1787 isn’t that sometimes politicians play hardball: It’s that this is what happens when the system itself is at stake.

“When the system itself is at stake” is a big-picture description of the what can happen when fundamental issues in our system of government exist that must be addressed. One of those fundamental issues is civic education: a proper understanding shared broadly among the people of what citizenship and political leadership require in a democracy such as ours.

Again from Levin:

The bigger problem, the more fundamental challenge to the stability of our republic on display on Wednesday, was a set of interconnected failures of responsibility—failures to take ownership of the fate of our society, and especially failures to deal with reality. The mob of rioters obviously behaved irresponsibly. Too many congressional Republicans did, too—flirting with lies and conspiracies for political gain, knowing it was all for show. But above all, it was the president’s irresponsibility that made Wednesday’s drama a real threat to our national stability.

Whether you are a citizen or an elected official, maintaining a free society requires you to take responsibility for society’s future, in part by “deal[ing] with reality.” Lies, conspiracies and ideologies that lack grounding in solid facts and sound principles, but support a preferred political or policy outcome, cannot lead to the freedom and equality we aspire to in America. Instead, they lead to the conclusion that the radically impossible is achievable. For instance, they lead otherwise reasonable people to believe that they can overturn the results of a free and fair election by storming the nation’s capital.

When the pursuit of the radically impossible leaves behind proper ethical restraints upon how political and policy goals ought to be achieved – for example, accepting violence as a legitimate means to a political end – social and political chaos ensues. That social disorder opens doors to enemies of freedom by helping them appear reasonable, even desirable, to the hearts and minds of Americans, when compared with the apparent alternative of the insanity going on around them.

Conclusion

There are reasons for optimism and hope despite disturbing violence coming out of Washington, D.C. this week. Our democracy is not about to crumble; we have seen such events before and not only survived them but thrived afterward. And we can do so again today.

There are also reasons for worry. Foremost among them is that our system of civic education is not adequately instilling in citizens – young or old – an understanding and devotion to what is required of citizens and elected leaders in a free society. Civic education needs to be examined and re-enshrined, as our nation’s and public school system’s founders believed, as a primary purpose for publicly-funded schools.

But even that worry is a cause for hope. Recognizing it means we can do something moving forward to solve the problems that led to this week’s rioting and violence. We are not powerless. The solution begins when each of us takes the responsibility of owning the future of our communities and nation, and nothing that happened this week can prevent that.

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