Capitol punishment and America's future

Everything changed when the walls of democracy were breached last week, when Trump refused to acknowledge defeat and the will of the people.

CIVILIAN EYEWITNESSES to the assassination of president John F. Kennedy cover their children in Dealey Plaza after shots were fired, in Dallas on November 22, 1963 (photo credit: REUTERS/CECIL STOUGHTON/THE WHITE HOUSE/JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY)
CIVILIAN EYEWITNESSES to the assassination of president John F. Kennedy cover their children in Dealey Plaza after shots were fired, in Dallas on November 22, 1963
(photo credit: REUTERS/CECIL STOUGHTON/THE WHITE HOUSE/JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY)
Paranoia strikes deep; into your life it will creep. It starts when you’re always afraid; step out of line, the men come and take you away. We better stop. Hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look, what’s going down. (“For What it’s Worth,” Stephen Stills and Buffalo Springfield, 1966.)
Like every American alive at the time, I remember vividly the day president John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was 10 years old, it was Friday, November 22, 1963 and I was home from school with the flu. The weather in Chicago that day was overcast and cloudy, but that was nothing compared to the gloom that was about to descend upon the country.
I waited impatiently at the door for my father to come home from work; he would surely explain to me what was happening and tell me what all this meant. When he walked in, I could see his face was red with tears. Naively, I said to him, “But Dad, you’re a Republican! Why are you crying?”
He looked at me with sadness and no small dissatisfaction.
“They shot the president! Don’t you understand?!” he sobbed. “Today, we’re not Republicans, we’re not Democrats. We are all Americans.”
THAT IMAGE came flashing back to me this past week while watching the horrendous events unfolding at the US Capitol. Mob scenes have always frightened me; we Jews have been subjected to all too many in our past; the public burning of the Talmud outside Paris’ Notre Dame in 1242; the auto-da-fés that tormented us during the 200-year Inquisition and innumerable murderous “Aktions” during the Holocaust. And while I think Arnold Schwarzenegger should terminate calling this “a modern Kristallnacht” – such hyperbole only serves to trivialize the Shoah – it still was a shocking and fearful event.
For those who have despised Donald Trump since well before he took office, this was the ultimate validation of their anti-Trump stridency. For them, the president’s address to the crowds in Washington, instigating them to press forward and “be strong, not weak” was the final culmination of his war against democracy and the rule of justice. It epitomized his repudiation of civil behavior and moral restraint in favor of egotistical, despotic, “I’m above the law” arrogance.
For those of us who have supported Trump – and that’s roughly half of the American electorate – the overwhelming emotion here was sadness and bitter disappointment. We have cheered Trump’s unwavering stance against the terrorists and bullies in Iran and China; we hailed his targeted killing of mass-murderers Qasem Soleimani and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; we rejoiced as he proudly stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel in the UN and other world bodies, moved the American embassy to Jerusalem and worked tirelessly to forge ties between several Arab countries and the Jewish state.
To see all these accomplishments fade into the background only to be dwarfed by one day of madness and mindless rampaging at the seat of democracy is a sobering and sorrowful experience. The Talmud (Avoda Zara 17a) records that Rabbi Judah the Prince cried when he witnessed martyrdom, declaring, “A person can acquire his eternity in just one moment.” It’s equally – and perhaps even more somber – to see someone lose their eternal reputation and name in an instant.
By all accounts, President Trump was an anomaly; a Washington outsider who didn’t fit in from the get-go, a do-it-yourself self-promoter who spurned advice from even his closest advisers and reveled in socially unacceptable speech and showmanship. His irreverent attitude and caustic comments were cringe-worthy in the extreme but also bought him wild popularity from adoring crowds. He basked in his anti-establishment bravado, even as it invited massive criticism from the media, which only served to exacerbate his self-image as a lone soldier, tilting at windmills from within an oval office.
The perfect plaque that should have adorned his desk would have read: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.”
I’VE ALWAYS had my own anti-establishment streak. I’m a product of the 1960s, a generation that latched on to every noble cause, from marching against the Vietnam War to protesting in favor of letting Soviet Jewry emigrate. Growing up in Chicago, where Mayor Daley’s brutal Democratic machine mercilessly ground up any and all opposition, if you wanted to go against the grain you had to be a Republican.
I recall fondly, when studying for smicha at Skokie Yeshiva, Rabbi Selig Starr taught us the Halacha that it was prohibited to slaughter an animal if it appeared that the animal was ill and on its last legs. “But what about a fish?” I asked. “How could you tell if it was sick?” Rabbi Starr smiled and answered, “If it’s swimming against the tide, then you know that it’s healthy!”
It was that kind of in-your-face rejection of business-as-usual, let’s-make-a-deal, under-the-table politics that attracted many of us to Trump’s unconventional style and struggle. We believed he could do the things other presidents only promised to do, but never actually delivered on, because he threw conventional policy and propriety to the wind. But everything changed when the walls of democracy were breached last week, when Trump refused to acknowledge defeat and the will of the people, when even his stalwart supporters bowed their heads in shame. The red line had been crossed, and the damage could not be undone.
America has recently suffered twin towers of turmoil – the looting and burning of its major cities by rampaging mobs following the death of George Floyd; and the assault on the Capitol in defiance of the orderly system of government. In both cases, the security apparatus failed miserably. In the long term, these events are as, or even more dangerous than the pandemic gripping America. COVID, we hope, now has a cure; but will America solve its festering problems and return to health?
Every freedom-loving person prays that it will.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.
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