Capitol Hill Riot Inquiry Reveals Growing Rift In US Society – OpEd


By Yossi Mekelberg*

When a US House of Representatives select committee late last month began its first hearing on the attempted Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, six months had already passed since that act of homegrown terrorism, yet it was obvious that emotions were still raw.

The harrowing testimonies of officers who heroically defended US democracy, sometimes with their bare hands, revealed a story of a divided nation undergoing one of its worst domestic crises in a long time. The extreme trauma that these officers were subjected to on that day was underlined by their body language, tears of frustration and occasional raised voices, as they told of the horrors of a violent mob trying to take over the Capitol.

Many of the officers were physically, mentally and racially abused by the rioters, and may never return to the force as a result. Tragically, four officers who responded to the assault on that fateful day have since taken their own lives.

The American public badly needs to know the truth about what happened in Washington and deal with the reality of that day, even if it is, for many, an inconvenient truth: Who was behind it? What were their motivations? And what role did President Donald Trump play in instigating the violence by spreading lies about the presidential election being rigged, and by telling those gathered around Capitol Hill that “if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore”?

No surprise, then, that most Americans appear to support a congressional commission to investigate these events, although Democrat voters outnumber Republicans on that question. Amid the current divisive societal discourse, the nation is polarized along political lines in its desire to know the truth about a defining moment in the country’s history when anti-democratic forces were ready to execute the unthinkable.

However, this situation is just the tip of the iceberg for a society which is deeply divided on almost every meaningful issue, and lacks mechanisms for constructive dialogue to bridge these divisions. The situation is made worse by a political system that in the past could put aside partisanship, at least behind closed doors, for the sake of governing the country. More recently it has been doing exactly the opposite and inflaming already existing frictions and discord.

Setting up a committee to investigate the events that led to the attack on the Capitol should have been a no-brainer. Every single legislator representing American democracy, and most definitely those who were in the building at the time of the riot, should have demanded an inquiry to find how the unthinkable could have happened to one of the major elements of the American democratic system, to ensure that whoever was involved or was pulling the strings behind it faces the full force of the law, and make certain that such an outrage never happens again.

Yet, despite the initial sense of shock among Republican lawmakers at Trump and his supporters’ violent attempt to reverse the result of a free and fair election, only a few months later almost 200 congressional Republicans voted against his impeachment, while most opposed the investigation and put forward all sorts of groundless and easily debunked conspiracy theories.

It is too easy to mock Trump and portray him as a historical accident and an anomaly, but if Jan. 6 was an accident, it was one waiting to happen.

Those legislators who know the truth about Trump and still support him do so because they believe it serves their political careers. Many, cynically, prefer not to oppose Trumpism because they see it not as a passing oddity but as a magnet for many millions of Americans who hold values and beliefs about the supposed danger posed by liberal-inclusive America, and are sympathetic to a populism that is based on nationalistic-religious sentiments and beliefs and rejects evidence based on science.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center makes uncomfortable reading, and confirms the fact that on most fundamental issues, including the economy, racial justice, climate change, law enforcement and international engagement, there is a colossal chasm in American society.

In the lead-up to the November 2020 presidential election, voters not only expressed their legitimate preference for one candidate or another, but 90 percent on both sides believed that the prospect of victory for the opposing candidate was a cause for grave concern regarding the country’s direction, and that such a victory would inflict lasting harm on the US.

This level of distrust invariably means that the winning candidate fails to receive even the benefit of the doubt, let alone genuine support, from those who did not vote for him. Considering that 46.9 percent of US voters, more than 74 million people, did not vote for Biden, mobilizing the entire country, or at least a critical mass of its citizens, behind his administration’s domestic and international agendas becomes a mammoth task. This divide is highlighted by the public response to attempts to contain and eradicate the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) virus, which is divided on whether to follow science, along the same lines as their voting preference.

America’s divisions as expressed in surveys reflect diametrically opposed core views, and this partisanship not only affects the ability of an administration to govern at home but also its ability to conduct foreign policy from a position of strength. Increasingly, debates have degenerated into personal attacks and character assassinations that question opponents’ morality and sincerity. In a society with one of the best education systems in the world, where scientific and critical thinking is sanctified, polls show that a worrying number of Americans hold doubts as to whether scientists make decisions solely based on facts.

So we shouldn’t be that surprised that instead of fact-based and constructive debate, we are witnessing disputes based on preconceived ideas, prejudices and biases along the lines that enabled populists in the Trump mold to reach positions of power and influence, and poison the public discourse countrywide, employing the extra, deadly venom that we saw in Washington on Jan. 6.

The heart-rending testimonies of those police officers who prevented the Capitol from being overrun should be flashing out warning signs stretching “from sea to shining sea,” from the shores of the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, alerting all to the fragility of American society, and its urgent need to embark on rebuilding and renewal.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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