This is not the column I intended to publish this week. In fact, I had already submitted “My 21 for 2021,” once again making s series of outlandish, and hopeful humorous, “predictions” for the year just started. Then, on January 6, 2021, President Trump incited a mob, thousands laid siege to our national Capitol building, and suddenly cracking jokes about Trump no longer felt right, or even in good taste. I have decided to retract what I wrote, or at least most of it.
So, I will not mention anything about the “Mar-A-Lago White House,” or about Trump issuing a self-commemorative stamp and sending out his “last tweet” saying “a leter is better.” As it happens, this man’s use of social media created a clear and present danger to the country.
As I write these words, on Friday, January 8, 2021, I have no idea what the next twelve days, the remainder of what’s left of the Trump administration, will bring. Despite the title of this column, I make no prediction of what lies ahead.
We have seen an attack not only on a building but on ourselves. Property has been destroyed, arrests have been made, people have died. The United States lies before the rest of the world in disgrace. Resignation, removal, impeachment—these words are in the air, along with others.
And while Trump and other elected officials bear their share of the blame, the buck doesn’t stop with them. I do not accept the notion of collective guilt, that we are all somehow to blame, that we must now “reconcile our differences” and put all of this behind us. We do not just have a pandemic decimating our population; we also have an infection that threatens our democracy and, therefore, our way of life.
There is no vaccine for that infection, and it won’t go away on its own. What we need, first, is accountability. The rule of law requires that the lawbreakers whom we saw on television—rampaging into the Capitol, marching through its corridors, destroying property, and threatening the safety of our elected officials and others—be held accountable for their conduct. They should be arrested, tried, and punished. Shame on us if we do anything less.
Why, as I watched the insurrection on January 6, 2021, did I think of Kristallnacht, the days in November 1938 when German Nazis killed Jews and attacked homes, synagogues, and Jewish businesses? That was another time in another country, and the two events are far from identical. But the resemblance between them, notably the fact that racist civilians were active participants both then and now, is not a figment of my imagination.
On a wall of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, you can read the words of Bishop Martin Niemöller, a German clergyman who wrote about the cowardice of silence, about not speaking out when “they” came—first for the socialists, then for the trade unionists, and then for the Jews—because he was none of those. “Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
It may be true that what happened in Washington last week does not represent who we are as a nation, but the risk is that it is who we will become. Accountability of the culprits is essential, but it is not enough. None of us can afford to be indifferent or remain silent. Now is the time to heed the words of Bishop Niemöller.