Tom Freeman’s painting of the August 24, 1814 burning of the White House by British troops during the War of 1812. (White House Historical Association)
In the fall of 1989, the world watched the Soviet Union begin to crumble, as its various satellites in Eastern Europe started breaking free from the decades-long grip of the terrorist state. The seminal moment came in November when the Berlin Wall was torn down, and the democratic west joined with the communist east to form the New Germany. That edifice had been both literal and ideological; a true line between freedom and tyranny.
A month later came another equally stunning and even more sanguineous event; one that gained plenty of international attention, but seems to have faded into history. Shortly before Christmas gangs of angry Romanians stormed the central palace and captured President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena. The duo was subjected to a trial and sentenced to death; afterwards they were garroted. Their demise was similar to that of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his mistress, as World War II came to an end. Bands of anti-fascist citizens captured them after ambushing their convoy and rushed them through a trial, before stringing them up like wild animals.
I imagine the mobs who invaded the U.S. Capitol building this past Wednesday felt equally aggrieved and outraged by what they perceived to be an unfair presidential election. Spurred on by the vitriolic rhetoric of their dear leader, Donald Trump, they amassed in Washington from all over the country and launched their angry assault. In behavior similar to that of developing countries, these renegades overwhelmed Capitol Hill police and managed to enter the arena where lawmakers had convened just moments earlier.
That January 6 was a critical day. That’s when elected officials gathered to certify that Joe Biden had won the U.S. presidency two months ago and would be sworn into office as the nation’s 46th president on January 20. The gangs of right-wing ideologues who disrupted that stately process demanded otherwise.
This is the first time since 1814 that the U.S. Capitol had been invaded. And that was in the midst of the War of 1812; during the early days of the American republic. Great Britain was still trying to regain control of its former colony and succeeded in burning down the capitol. That was over 200 years ago. Last Wednesday came during a war of ideology and political differences.
I have never seen anything like it in my life. Indeed, it is something more emblematic of nations around the world struggling through the growing pains of a new democracy or any new regime change. It’s similar to what happened in Cuba on New Year’s Day 1959, when Fidel Castro led a ragtag band of rebels into the presidential palace in Havana to overthrow the brutal dictator Fulgencio Batista. Like Ceausescu and Mussolini, Batista had held onto power for many years through bloodshed and terrorism. He suppressed free speech and sought to annihilate anyone who dared to disagree with him. Unlike Ceausescu and Mussolini, however, Batista was able to leave Cuba and live out his life in peaceful exile – and wealth – in Spain.
The people who stormed into the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday aren’t freedom-loving patriots. They’re domestic terrorists; redneck hooligans supported and agitated by a psychopathic narcissist who didn’t fairly win the U.S. presidency in 2016. They weren’t the least bit upset over the blatantly fraudulent elections of that year and 2000.
For decades conservatives have lobbed conspiracy theories about mobs of left-wing anarchists swarming into American homes to seize firearms and bibles and force everyone to love Muslims and queer people. That has never happened. It didn’t happen after the raucous turmoil of the 2000 presidential elections and it didn’t happen four years ago. As upset as liberals were then, groups of enraged tree-loving abortionists and pot-smokers didn’t invade Washington and trash lawmakers’ offices. The biggest threat came from within the bastions of conservatism.
I hope devout Trumpists are happy with themselves.
One Capitol Hill police officer, Brian D. Sicknick, has now succumbed to his injuries. Four protesters also died; one of them shot to death. I’m saddened by Sicknick’s death, but I don’t give a damn about the others. Like people who drink alcohol heavily their entire lives and develop cirrhosis, they brought this upon themselves. The Capitol Hill police chief has resigned, and – as of this writing – nearly 20 people have been arrested in connection with Wednesday’s mayhem. Insurrection is a federal offense, and treason is technically punishable by death. The legal machinations over this debacle will play out for years.
And Donald Trump will go down in history as a president who fomented a riot and placated the rioters.
The nation will move forward, as time does – whether anyone on the far left or far right like it or not. The spirit of a truly democratic society can’t be quashed. It never has and it never will.