Wednesday was perhaps the saddest and most disheartening day in America that I’ve seen in my lifetime.
And yes, as I think about those words, that includes 9/11, which was a truly awful, grotesque, gut-wrenching nightmare of a day — one of the worst days in my memory. But on that day, our country was attacked by outsiders, and it fortified us for what was to come. Like the aftermath of Pearl Harbor in 1941, our wounds made us stronger.
But on Wednesday, as a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington to protest November’s presidential election results and the Electoral College certification, the damage wasn’t caused by outsiders.
No, that was us.
Those were Americans in those images of giddy rioters making themselves at home in a deserted Senate chamber, roaming through the corridors of the capitol, walking off with looted items or carrying Confederate flags through the halls — an act of rebellious desecration that the Confederacy itself never achieved during the Civil War. It was a dystopian freak show broadcast live for the entire world to see and for Americans to bear.
That was us inflicting the damage.
That was also us being insulted and humiliated by a mob sprung from a world of political conspiracies and howling propaganda, all in service to the ego of a defeated president who egged it on and who, at the end of that miserable day, actually inferred that these people were “great patriots.” (Some of President Trump’s defenders are claiming — or rationalizing to themselves — that it was actually Antifa members spurring Wednesday’s insurrection. That seems highly doubtful, but it almost doesn’t even matter: Since Trump told the mob in a tweet — which has since been deleted — that they should “go home in love & peace” and “remember this day forever!”, it’s fair to say our own president approved of this attack on our capitol and our democracy. His priorities seem clear.)
That was all us — that was America — and that’s what made it so painfully sad. That’s what created that empty pit in our stomachs as we watched the unthinkable play out.
It was also disheartening to see capitol security apparently so lax that there were videos of guards allegedly opening gates to let the rioters in and officers taking selfies with the protesters. (Other officers were injured in the skirmishes.) And as a curfew neared in Washington, these invaders were simply herded out of the capitol mostly without being arrested, as if they had just wrapped up a rambunctious afternoon of laser tag.
It was disheartening because there are lawmakers on Capitol Hill who fueled this putsch with their conspiracy-addled grievances. These lawmakers, too, are complicit with Wednesday’s assault.
And it was disheartening because, as we watched this insurrection unfold, we began to realize that America is not some Gibraltar-like rock of democracy that’s impervious to collapse, that we can’t take it for granted that it will stand strong and unbroken against any storm. Some of the lawmakers challenging the Electoral College vote Wednesday likely never dreamed that the rioters would get so far or do so much damage. Other Americans may be dealing with that same nightmare realization now.
It turns out that this nation is only as strong as we make it and only as solid as the faith we invest in it. It has survived only because generations of us have made it work, have cherished its ideals, have agreed to disagree under the sun of a greater good, have worked to right its wrongs and have embraced all our disparate elements in order to preserve this grand and improbable union.
Perhaps in that realization — in the wake of what we saw and felt Wednesday — there is a spark of hope in all this.
By the end of the day Wednesday (actually, early Thursday), nothing had really changed, at least in terms of the mechanics of our democracy. The House and Senate, which had been evacuated as the mobs moved in, reconvened hours later and finished the work that the rioters could not derail — the certification of the presidential election that paves the way for the unlikeliest and, heretofore, most American of things: the peaceful transition of power. The insurrection melted away into the darkness. Our nation was still a nation.
However, perhaps we now see more keenly just how fragile America can be, especially in the hands of the self-serving, the misguided and the politically conniving. Now we can understand what Benjamin Franklin meant when, during the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, he was asked if this nation would be a republic or a monarchy, and he replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” That was as much a warning as it was a passing remark.
To truly keep it, it really is up to us. America is only as sturdy as we will it to be. And nothing about that should ever be taken for granted.
Follow @kelly_hertz on Twitter.