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The Sack of America

Although I am American born and educated, I lived outside the country for six years, from 1991 to 1997. On my return I noticed many subtle changes, which I viewed with the eyes of one who had been half acculturated into another country. Perhaps one of the most striking was that people no longer wrote, or even said, that something was a “problem.” There were no more “problems,” it seemed, in America. Only “issues.” In the years since, people have taken to uttering straight-faced such ridiculous sentences as, “He and I are gonna have a issue.” But shrinking from saying the word “problems” did not mean America had solved them all. Our problems as a nation had grown, deepened, and assumed sinister new shapes even in those supposedly halcyon days after the Soviet Union went belly up and before the 9/11 attacks. Yet we could not even say the word “problem” aloud.

Well, we have a problem, America, one that will almost certainly destroy the nation as we have known it. And it will not be averted or even postponed one bit by refusing to name it.

The names publicly given to the events of January 6, 2021 are all weasel words. It was not a “riot” or even an “insurrection” that took place when a mob of Trump loyalists stormed the United States Capitol Building. Calling it a “coup attempt” or a “putsch” comes closer to the heart of the matter. But we need an even simpler and more brutal term from some of history’s darkest moments. Our Capitol, the seat of our national government, was sacked, as the Visigoths sacked Rome in the year 410 CE and the Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204 CE.

I am not the first to use this word in this context, and I regret that I can’t remember where I first read it. But it fits the facts, and provides important context for the bizarre spectacle of participants dressed up in “cosplay” costumes strutting around the Rotunda while others put their feet up on elected officials’ desks or defecated in the corridors. These desecrations weren’t a sideshow, they were the main act, and their meaning was unmistakable: we, the mob, are removing the majesty and even the basic dignity from the institutions of a government that has been established upon the solemn invocation, “We the people,” for some two hundred thirty years. The sacred mysteries have been breached, smeared with shit, and trampled underfoot, and nobody will ever respect or fear them, ever again. Surprisingly little bloodshed accompanied this almost successful overthrow of the U.S. government, as high-ranking officials in the once-and-future dictator’s service ordered the U.S. military to do nothing to impede the pillaging–though we will probably never know precisely who ordered what, thanks to the ongoing obstruction of Congress by the dictator’s men. In any case, the threat of an armed lynch mob was enough to send most elected officials fleeing for their lives while others hid in darkened closets. And although the mob was eventually driven off, the symbolic damage has been done. It is critical and it is irreversible, a fact that one suspects the Capitol Police officers who committed suicide in the wake of these events intuited.

Had the national reaction been one of across-the-board shock, horror and outrage, it might have been possible to restore the American ancien regime of free speech and free elections on a firmer grounding than it had enjoyed in at least a generation. In this path not taken, the Congress would have reassembled that very night, not just to affirm Joe Biden’s election, but to impeach, convict, and remove from office the extremely dangerous man who had incited these events. He should have been evicted from the White House by U.S. Marshals, or perhaps the U.S. Marines, and jailed awaiting trial for attempting to overthrow the U.S. government. Instead, of course, he was allowed the continue profaning the Executive Mansion for two more weeks, while the party he had suborned and corrupted blocked all attempts to hold him to account, generating contradictory outrageous lies that the mob that sacked the Capitol had been left-wingers in disguise, or merely harmless tourists who did no damage worth mentioning. In this, most were probably faithfully representing the radicalized constituents who had elected them, while the fact that most were holdovers from the old Republican Party who had remade themselves as sycophants of the fascist New Order helped obfuscate the sharpness of their break with the American past.

Once the new administration assumed office, it quickly became clear that the justice system was not even going to make individual members of the mob face any serious consequences. One defendant was even allowed to go on vacation to Mexico while charges were pending! Other judges have talked a good game, but sentences have ranged from probation to a couple of years in the federal pen for the “most serious” offenders. It’s as if somebody has consciously decided to treat the whole thing like a frat party that got out of hand, with punishments more suitable to juvenile delinquents than to an armed, fascist mob that almost massacred scores of elected officials. This strategy of avoidance and minimization will presumably be extended to bigger fish like Steve Bannon, who is probably right to sneer at the charge of contempt of Congress; he’s barely any likelier to ever see the inside of a prison cell than his quondam boss.

Perhaps some people reason that such a strategy will calm tensions. But as any student of history could have predicted, it is doing the exact opposite. From state legislatures to local school board meetings, we are witnessing the growing reverberations of the sack of the U.S. Capitol. No elected official at any level is safe from the mob if he or she does anything to rouse its displeasure, from trying to protect voting rights to requiring vaccinations and mask wearing during a pandemic of a respiratory disease. Violent threats follow them to their homes and their children’s schools. The aim, from the same people shouting loudest about the threat to free speech from left-wing “political correctness,” is to intimidate and silence all opposition. They have seen it work, live on TV. They have seen the perpetrators get away with it. And they will not stop until the tottering ancien regime represented by the very U.S. Constitution that they pretend to fetishize is dead and buried. History teaches us to expect to mounting verbal and then physical violence until a terrible climax is reached, and the U.S. government is overthrown, one way or another, in fire and in blood. For the mob that sacked the U.S. Capitol tore the veil asunder, and showed Uncle Sam to be nothing but a feeble, senescent old man who refuses even to admit that his life is coming to a close. The dictator is certainly acting as if he plans to return to power, although he may not be the ultimate beneficiary of the primitive hatreds he has unleashed–perhaps someone even worse will be, and Russia, China, and Iran are already jockeying for position in the coming world without an American “hegemon.” When the dictator’s followers speak of his “reinstatement,” the response to this deadly serious threat to overthrow the United States must not be to jeer at them as deluded mystics.

A great deal of mischief has been done by people who imagine History to be a goddess of some sort, with a will, desires and plans of her own. In the wake of the extinction of Marxism-Leninism, most serious historians today disavow any and all grand philosophies of history. But popular beliefs in such things are only getting stronger. What is a “conspiracy theory” of the rampant Q-Anon sort but a philosophy of history in which evil puppetmasters secretly pull the strings? Then there are the pseudo-intellectual crackpot theories of figures like Bannon, who imagine they have discovered the forces that really drive history, exactly as the Marxist-Leninists of the previous century imagined they had scientific proof that a “class struggle” was bound to produce a worldwide revolution. The American left is also sunk in nonsensical magical thinking, demanding that people “get on the right side of history,” as if history had a “side,” or perhaps believing, smugly, still, that something called Progress is slow but inevitable. “I can’t believe that in 2021 we still have to argue that…” they say, as if history were a grand, linear march.

History has such no such plans, theories or laws. It has only the lessons of the past to teach us: one of which is, once a capital city is sacked, ruin inevitably follows. For Rome, it took the better part of a century. For Constantinople, some two hundred fifty years. I am no prophet, but I strongly suspect that in this speed-addled age, we have no such luxury of time.

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