This past week, Americans watched as the hallowed chambers of the Capitol were overrun and defiled, not by some foreign enemy of democracy but a mob of their fellow citizens.
And then they tried to make sense of it.
In letters to the editor and posts on social media, they raised their voices. In Iowa, a lifelong Republican mourned the shredding of the country’s political norms. In Tennessee, a pastor and activist, alarmed by the rioters’ behavior, wondered if it might provide an impetus for change. In Mississippi, a young teacher worried what her students will make of the violence.
Days later, their anger, fear and uncertainties still linger. Answers have not come easily.
“In my 72-plus years I have taken many oaths. To my faith in the triune God when I was confirmed ... To my God and to my country as a Boy Scout ... Not once did I swear allegiance to the individual holding the office of president of the United States. I swore allegiance to the United States of America and its Constitution. Not once did I swear to riot, and storm and break into the U.S. Capitol if I did not like the outcome of an election.” -- Mark Hanson of Des Moines, Iowa, in a letter to the editor published online Jan. 7 by the Des Moines Register.
When Mark Hanson walked in the door from work Wednesday night, he found his wife, Thalya, fixated on the television in their family room. “Are you aware of what’s going on?” she asked, the concern clear in her voice.
Then the couple, together since high school, sat for hours on the sofa, puzzling over the state of a nation they’d long proudly called their own, even as it has grown harder to recognize.
Ever since 1964, when a 16-year-old Hanson was invited by a local party official to serve as a junior delegate to the state convention, he had thought of himself as a staunch Republican. But the riot was the most painful reminder yet that the party that once stood for his conservative, American values was long gone.
“That Republican party has left us behind and it’s been taken over by some people who ... criticize others as being Republicans in name only,” Hanson said. “I’d say they are the ones who are Republicans in name only and they’re taking the country down a road I would regard as seditious, as treasonous.”
His entire life, Hanson said, has been framed by oaths -- the one taken as an Eagle Scout, another as a young Army lieutenant, still another as an attorney admitted to the state bar. With each, he’d promised to respect truth and to fulfill a duty to his country and all its citizens, regardless of their politics. The rioters had trashed that ethic.
Still, Hanson hopes, maybe the riot will be the nation’s turning point.
This week’s events, he said, reminded him of the fall of Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin senator who pursued a virulent campaign in the 1950s to expose Americans he insisted were Communists, destroying careers and lives with often baseless charges. It ended only when other leaders, at last so appalled by the extremism of his actions, rejected the persecution as fundamentally un-American.
“I’m hoping that this is a defining moment,” Hanson said, pointing to the wide criticism of both Trump and the rioters. “If it is that moment then, for all the turmoil, that would be something good that would come out of it. Of course, it’s too early to tell.”
“As a teacher I am beyond exhausted. Having kids see on their news that there’s a shooting at the U.S. capitol & violent riots, while they’re also here trying to learn in a damned pandemic, doesn’t really do wonders for their mental health or educational health. And all the while I have to remain positive. To not let them see an adult crumble under fear and anxiety. This is my future but look at our students’ future. We have GOT TO DO BETTER.” — Emily Kreuger of Madison, Mississippi, posting on Twitter, Jan. 6.
On the September morning terrorists flew jets into the World Trade Center, Emily Kreuger had just started fourth grade. But she clearly remembers how shaken she felt, walking out into the hallway of her school near Jackson, Mississippi, to find teachers crying.
Kreuger, now 28, thought back to that moment on Wednesday when her phone and those belonging to the middle school students she now teaches began buzzing with alert after alert: An angry mob was breaching the Capitol.
“I didn’t want to cry in front of these students, but I wanted to be transparent,” she said. “These kids, they want to know ... and some of them are very passionate about what they think because, at that age, you’re becoming who you are.”
Don’t worry, everything’s going to be OK, Krueger said she told her students. Later, though, she realized her words were intended as much for self-comfort as to reassure the teens in her care.
Her devotion to middle schoolers was inspired in part by the loss of her brother to suicide when he was just 13. Now, teaching students of the same age, she is mindful both of their potential and their impressionability. One day, they will be the leaders of this country. But what are they learning now, watching the violent scenes in Washington?
“You have got to remember that they are watching everything you do, that they are learning that this is how I function in society,” she said.
“I hope this is not who we want to be as Americans,” Krueger said. “But I think we have a long way to go.”
“All I can think right now is that if someone brought a bomb to the Capitol today, I could die today. I drove home from the pediatrician today and saw men in American flag shirts attacking someone’s car. I can see the chaos in DC from my window. I have a child. I am frightened. For her. For me. For our country.” -- Sarah Robinson, Arlington, Va., posted to Facebook, Jan. 6, 4:42 p.m.
On Wednesday afternoon, Sarah Robinson was sitting in a doctor’s office, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., when her phone began buzzing with unsettling messages from friends. They were asking: Was she safe?
Puzzled, she checked her phone. The headlines left the mental health counselor stunned.
Robinson moved to Washington for college in 2007 and stayed on after graduation when she “fell in love” with the capital region. This past summer, she and her husband joined a Black Lives Matter march to the White House. In recent weeks, Robinson had taken to wheeling her 8-month-old daughter in her stroller for walks around the National Mall.
But the crowds attacking the Capitol upended her perceptions of Washington.
As she drove home with her daughter in the back seat, her fears intensified. The people attacking the Capitol were so delusional, she felt, that they did not realize their actions amounted to treason.
Since the attack, she’s met with clients who were affected, people who are expected to “report to work, answer emails, keep the country running.”
“But they talk about feeling frozen, unable to take a pause and process what just happened. They talk about this attitude of `it’s done, move on' and so many of them just aren’t ready yet,” she said.
Her fear gave way to anger and dismay at the state of the nation.
“The Capitol is a symbol of our country, but it’s made up of human beings. Attacking a building is never just climbing a wall, it’s creating work, pain, and agony for innocent staffers and employees who are then expected to bury their feelings and keep going. Empathy is missing in our government, and especially in our leadership, and that has trickled down to half the country.”
“While I won’t ever forget this day, I am still quite hopeful of tomorrow. I believe there is so much work to be done. Yesterday had to happen so that we could truly see how deep racism truly is interwoven into our country. Some painful moments make sense later.” -- DeVante Hill of Memphis, posted on Twitter, Jan. 7.
On the outskirts of downtown Memphis, a small square -- known as “I am a Man” Plaza -- memorializes the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 visit in support of striking sanitation workers, most of them poor and black.
On Wednesday, DeVante Hill, a local pastor and activist for racial justice, was getting ready to do a television interview at the site. When four or five pickup trucks with Trump flags began driving back and forth in front of the plaza, the drivers honking their horns in celebration, he knew something was wrong.
Hill said he took the first reports of the riots in stride. But his emotions swelled as he watched footage of two Trump supporters atop the steps of a Washington church, mimicking the May arrest and death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
“I was upset that we were literally watching white supremacy before our eyes,” Hill said.
He’d marched in Washington protests in largely Black crowds, well aware of determined efforts by police to keep control. If rioters, nearly all white, had been Black, there was every chance police officers would have shot them, he said. The thought of it left him feeling sick.
Then, Hill said, he thought about how civil rights leader and former Georgia Rep. John Lewis, who died this year, would have assessed the events at the Capitol. Perhaps the destruction, by exposing harsh realities, meant they could no longer be ignored.
“That’s when my mind was able to escape to the reality of our newfound future,” said Hill, 28.
With Democrats soon to take control of the White House and the Senate, there will be new chances to reshape the country, to reimagine policing and the policies that shape life in cities like his, he said.
“I know I cannot exhaust much energy into what happened the other day, because our future is much more promising that our past has been these last four years,” Hill said. “For me it’s about restoring common decency back to our country.”