The Place Where We Become What We Said We Would Be
Thoughts on the Capitol
I was having an early lunch with my fiancée on Wednesday afternoon when we first heard news of the attack on the Capitol. We listened to the radio in growing horror as the story grew grimmer and more terrifying by the moment. For me, and for many others, it brought back a feeling I haven’t felt in nearly 20 years, since that awful September morning in 2001. In many ways, though the loss of life was thankfully far less than on 9/11, the sense of outrage was even greater this time. It is one thing to be attacked by religious fanatics from the other side of the world; it is another thing altogether to be attacked by one’s own countrymen and women.
In watching coverage of the attack, what stands out isn’t just the shouts of “Hang Mike Pence” or “Stop the Steal.” It’s the swaggering sense of entitlement so clear in so many in the crowd – unlike on 9/11, they are not attacking symbols of a society they regard as irredeemably morally bankrupt. Rather, the insurrectionists saw themselves as reclaiming what was rightfully theirs. They sat at the Speaker’s desk, stole podiums, and put feet on desks. Though they would have surely liked to have shed far more blood than they did, they consoled themselves at their inability to carry out hoped-for murders by fouling the halls of Congress with their trash and their feces, much as a dog pees on a bush to mark its territory.
There have been dozens of worthy essays written in the past four days, and more surely to come. What I’m concerned with here is how we see the Capitol building, and how we view what the terrorists did to it and in it. Many of us, both with and without strong religious affiliations, used sacred language to describe what we felt: “It felt like a church was being defiled,” said many; others called it “the temple of our democracy.” My daughter compared the Capitol to the ark in a synagogue in which Torahs are kept; she described what was done on Wednesday as equivalent to anti-Semites defecating on our holy scrolls.
My first visit to Washington DC was as faculty chaperone for a college lobbying trip in 1997. I wept twice on that trip: one, when I ran up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at dawn and stood alone in front of that grave and great face; the other, when eight students and I walked through the busy halls of the Capitol and we saw the quotidian work of democracy in action. The entire architecture of D.C. is designed to elicit reverence, pride and awe – and I saw all three on the faces of my students. When we reached the rotunda, I started to cry and my group teased me with affection, but I saw other eyes moisten as well. When we walked out to find a late lunch, no one said anything for nearly 30 minutes, each of us alone with his or her thoughts.
On my Facebook page on Friday, a few friends took issue with the description of the Capitol as a defiled church. My friend Steph wrote,
I definitely don’t think of it as a temple. My first (only partially sarcastic) thought was, ‘Wow, if I only knew it was that easy to storm the Capitol, I have lots of poverty-stricken friends would have done it themselves ages ago, for REAL reasons!’ Which is to say that I would be relatively uncritical of the breaking-and-entering element, if it was for something ACTUALLY righteous.
I think many people are getting their lives actively destroyed because of many of the anti-human, pro-corporate decisions of our government, so I would not hold it against, say, low-income insulin-dependent diabetics if they had (nonviolently) broken into the sacred halls and smeared feces on the walls, if it meant actually being heard and stirring massive public attention.
A number of friends echoed her stance. Though they deplored violence against persons, they would have been quite happy with a righteous and justified invasion of the Capitol if it were done by the oppressed instead of the oppressors. Steph, like many of my friends to my left, were more upset with what motivated the siege than the siege itself. For the left, to describe the Capitol as a temple is to retreat into passive acceptance of the oppressive policies that originate from its halls and chambers.
A friend on the opposite end of the spectrum suggested I was right to think of the Capitol in quasi-religious terms, but wrong as to the motivation of the insurrectionists. They weren’t defilers, he claimed, but “purifiers” -- even positing that the rioters were like Jesus, throwing the moneychangers out of the temple. Presumably had the coup succeeded, and Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi been hanged, the Deplorables would have taken over the rituals of the place, with gavels and protocol, sanctifying their insurrection.
In his long poem written for the centennial of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, the late Richard Wilbur offers critical praise for the American project:
Praise to this land for our power to change it,
To confess our misdoings, to mend what we can,
To learn what we mean and make it the law,
To become what we said we were going to be.
The Capitol, more than any other place, is where we “learn what we mean and make it the law.” It is the precise spot where we “mend what we can,” through a process that is often opaque and slow and frustrating, but no less miraculous for being all those things and more. It is a temple of sacred alchemy, where intentions are distilled into legislation. The murderous rioters who tried to seize Congress believed that if they took the building and its occupants, they would have control of what Wilbur calls the power to change and mend.
Those who fought to defend it, like the brave Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman and his fallen colleague Brian Sicknick, put their lives on the line to preserve the law, to preserve life, and to keep alive the holy process of becoming “what we said we were going to be.”