Capitol riots shows how democracy can be fragile - analysis

America’s friends around the world, like those in Jerusalem, shook their heads in disbelief at that sight and wondered what had become of the world’s premier democracy.

Protesters and police clash at the foot of the US Capitol, January 6, 2021.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Protesters and police clash at the foot of the US Capitol, January 6, 2021.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The image of a rioter clad in black standing with his right arm raised in clenched-fist victory in the House chamber on Wednesday – exactly where US Vice President Mike Pence stood just moments earlier presiding over a joint session of Congress – will not be easily forgotten.
America’s friends around the world, like those in Jerusalem, shook their heads in disbelief at that sight and wondered what has become of the world’s premier democracy.
America’s enemies, like those in Russia, China, and Iran, smiled at that picture, and will present it as proof of the disintegration not only of American democracy, but of American society. The US empire is crumbling, they will gloat.
But the picture of that rioter, and a photo of another sitting brazenly in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office with one foot on her desk, only depicts part of what happened in the Capitol, and only tells one part of that dramatic story.
Another picture is of a stern-looking Pence back in his rightful place behind the rostrum a few hours later, certifying the electoral victory of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and his own defeat, and that of US President Donald Trump. That photo is no less significant, and no less part of the story.
That a mob, egged on by Trump himself, stormed the US Capitol is mind-boggling. But that Congress, unbowed, reconvened hours later to certify Biden’s victory, is also noteworthy. That, too, is America.
America’s democracy is ailing; it is not dying.
But even an ailing American democracy should ring alarm bells in democracies around the world.
Democracy is a fragile thing; it must be carefully guarded and cultivated. It cannot be taken for granted. And it must not lead to people looking at anti-Democratic trends or actions abroad saying complacently, “that could never happen here.” Because if it can happen in America, it could happen anywhere.
And unlike in America, where there are strong democratic traditions and institutions going back 250 years able to push back against undemocratic tendencies, those institutions and traditions don’t exist to the same degree everywhere.
What happened in Washington on Wednesday is a cautionary tale for all the world’s democracies, including ours in Israel.
There used to be a saying about Trump, that those who hate him take everything he says quite literally, and those who love him believe that he is joking around most of the time and don’t take what he says all that seriously.
The events in Washington on Wednesday turned that saying on its head.
Trump’s ardent supporters took very seriously his tweet from last month about coming to a “big protest” in Washington on January 6, and that “it will be wild.” They took very literally his comments to them Wednesday morning: “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
They took him literally, and then they invaded the Capitol.
Israel is not America. The divisions here are of a different nature than those in the United States, and there are deep religious, historical and cultural bonds that exist among a vast majority of the population here that do not exist in the US melting pot.
Nevertheless, passions here run at a fever pitch. As is the case in 21st century America, absolute certitude also exists on both sides of the political fault lines in Israel to a dangerous extent, whether it has to do with the innocence or guilt of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or about the future of Judea and Samaria.
Trump has been slamming the electoral process for months, even before he lost the election. It should have come as no great surprise, therefore, that a mob invaded the holy of holies of that “tainted’’ electoral process.
So too, the constant drumbeat from the Prime Minister’s Office against Israel’s judiciary, nasty rhetoric delegitimizing the courts and their officers, does not fall on deaf ears here. People hear these words and – if the passions are stirred – may act on them. Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. We are not immune.
One does not need to suspend all belief to imagine a scenario whereby an Israeli court convicts Netanyahu of bribery and fraud, the Supreme Court upholds that conviction, and some of the prime minister’s most ardent believers – certain of his innocence and that the system was rigged against him – storms the Supreme Court just as that mob stormed the US Capitol.
And on the other side of the fence are those who are fanatically anti-Netanyahu, those who get worked up to a frenzy week after week at the protests outside the Prime Minister’s Residence, those who are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is guilty of all the charges against him and is the embodiment of corruption. It is also not difficult to imagine a situation where they storm the Prime Minister’s Residence if the court decides to throw out the indictments against him. For these people, too, are blessed with perfect certitude, and convinced the country is being taken from them.
What happened in Washington on Wednesday will be studied in the United States for years to come, with good people sincerely trying to understand what went wrong, what brought this about, and how to prevent a recurrence. And that learning process should not be restricted to the US alone.
There is an old saying that everything that happens in America eventually comes to Israel as well, only with a delay of between five to 10 years. It is incumbent upon us as well to take advantage of the time lag, to look at the actions and events that led to the stunning violation of the US Capitol on Wednesday and take the corrective steps needed to ensure that something like it never happens here.