For everything there is a season

The failed lynching (that’s what we should call it, by the way, not a “protest,” a “riot” or even a “coup”) at the Capitol the other day brought out a lot of soul-searching among my media-posting friends. One friend’s hot take began:

This country was founded on violence. It rules through violence. It projects its influence abroad through violence. How can we be shocked when a faction of the country turns violent if it doesn’t get its way? 

The main difference between this violence and the violence of the past months is who’s carrying it out and who it’s pointed at. 

I can’t in good conscience say this is wholly wrong, but it is certainly unseasonable. I happen to know this person well enough to be able to frame his remarks as a general expression of despair about the state of things in this country, an intended reckoning for our many collective crimes, starting with chattel slavery and its endless echoes. But let’s hold back from slapping an intentional frame around the words, and imagine them spoken by someone else– say the cosplayer in the buffalo suit, or a PR flack on Fox News. “This country was founded on violence” — so what are you complaining about? Wasn’t the Boston Tea Party a case of breaking and entering and property destruction carried out by costumed thugs? If this country is founded on violence, and its fundamentally vicious system can’t be repaired, then why make these “fine people” carry the blame for a momentary expression of these structural conditions? — And so on. The overarching claim nullifies the particular scandal that is this event.

Rhetorically, this is a big misstep. If you want the failed lynching to serve as an occasion for sermonizing the public, you need to frame it as a specific instance of horror, unprecedented since the institution of universal suffrage and civil-rights guarantees, that must not be repeated. You can’t say it’s business as usual. Otherwise we are stuck with the writer’s halfway conclusion, that the only noteworthy thing about this chaos is “who’s carrying it out and who it’s pointed at.”

No. Once you begin to personalize the event, we’re stuck with a bad set of alternatives. So breaking into a public building with the intent to kill people and take hostages is okay if it’s done by people of whom I generally approve, against people of whom I generally disapprove? If there is to be a law, it has to be articulated impersonally. Whoever does X, commits a crime. Did they do X? Okay then, they committed a crime, and from that point of view it doesn’t matter in the name of what they did it. There may be extenuating circumstances, but let’s have them, too, articulated in an objective and impersonal fashion, rather than as a personal exemption for supporters of favored causes.

“Violence” is such a broad term that it is useless for thinking with. Broken windows on Michigan Avenue, a fistfight in a hallway, a cop beaten to death with a fire extinguisher, an improvised gallows set up on the National Mall, these are all arguably instances of violence, but they ought each to be investigated, deplored, punished and thought about in specific ways. And don’t get me started on the structural violence of deprivation, fear, ignorance, disease, inequality and shortened lives, which is violence too but is too often accepted as the way of the world.

So we need to separate out the particular factors that make this the scandal that it is, and not endorse any narrative that makes it business as usual (or, worse, a pattern for future events). And push hard, with the law, on the people who did it and the ones who egged them on.

About law, by the way, I see the “main difference” between the January 6 lynch mob and the BLM protesters across the country as bearing on the law. The BLM folks were demanding that law be obeyed. It should be uncontroversial to any observer that the laws of the land carry more authority than the momentary impulse of any scared policeman with a gun. Whereas the January 6 thugs were rebelling against the law, against a huge body of settled law that preserves us from, precisely, the state of lawlessness. If you want a contrast, that’s where to find it.

My friend’s reflection continued.

My sympathies were with the BLM protesters and are against today’s yahoos, but both have to be considered illegitimate (non-state-sanctioned) violence. 

Oh, wait, today’s violence was incited by our current president! The duly elected leader of our cult of violence.

How are we supposed to process this?

Friend, let’s pause and repair this helicopter in mid-air. You really shouldn’t follow the previous point and make the difference between the two gangs a matter of your “sympathies,” as if it rested on taste or preference, Coke or Pepsi, Pat Boone or Sid Vicious. That just makes any attempt to bring the perpetrators to justice a hollow farce, because, as you’re admitting, it’s all the same and it’s just a Humpty-Dumpty matter of who’s sitting in the judgment seat. Don’t give up so fast, I say.

Then the closing remarks, which may be meant ironically (poor choice of rhetorical figure in a time of crisis; irony is meant to create doubt, whereas what’s required here is a shot of good old unanimous certainty), shore up the legitimacy of Trump’s summons to violence, first by calling him “duly elected” and then by dissolving his particularity in the everlasting national wave of violence. A reminder: he may have been elected by a majority of Electoral College votes in 2016 (we’ll take complaints about the College another time), and his predecessor quite honorably accepted the outcome (though he, and I, and millions of other Americans weren’t happy about it), but in early 2021 he was the outgoing, defeated president, legally required to honor the will of the people and nonetheless attempting to overwhelm Congress with chaos, suspend the law, and reinstall himself as president-for-life. Nothing about that is qualifiable with the adverb “duly.”

“How are we supposed to process this?” I’ve given some hints above. The world is full of wicked people, friend. Most people will do whatever you let them get away with. Thomas Hobbes thought tyranny was better than chaos. But there are better alternatives. Imperfect though it is, a clearly stated system of laws, provision for trials based on evidence and judged by people held to a standard of impartiality, a democratic right to peaceable expression through balloting and other means, and a reasonable expectation that criminals will be brought to justice, all this is what we have, for the moment, in this country, and it’s really not something you want to throw away, even for the space of an emotional utterance to your social-media circle. We came close to having all that taken away on January 6. Who knows what would have happened if the most determined and expert members of the mob had succeeded in, say, hanging Mike Pence, shooting Nancy Pelosi, taking other Congresspeople hostage, and doing further things they declared their intent to do? Let me tell you how we are supposed to process this: as an invasion of our democracy by enemy powers who must be captured (technically: arrested) and put away (observing their right to a fair and speedy trial, etc.). Not so hard after all when you put aside the crude alternatives of “America good / America bad.”

The above-mentioned liberties are, I know, more theoretical than practical at present. But the only way forward is to defend them rigorously and make them practical for everybody. Don’t give up on a good principle just because it was poorly executed. If you had only my piano playing to go on, you would think J. S. Bach was the worst composer who ever lived. But he wasn’t.

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