By BEN R. WILLIAMS
My grandfather, James A. Mize, joined the Army when he was just 16 years old. He fought the Nazis on the European front, ultimately losing his right leg to a mortar shell during the Battle of the Bulge.
My grandfather loved America and he hated the Nazis.
As a child, I remember that he always had an American flag flying off the side of the house. He had a license plate with his Purple Heart on it. He watched every World War II movie and TV show ever made and graded them on their accuracy (“Band of Brothers” was the most accurate, he said). He supported the troops. He supported America. And boy oh boy, did he ever hate the Nazis.
My grandfather died in 2008. I’m glad he didn’t live to see 2021. It would have broken him.
1/6/21 is a day that will live in infamy as surely as 12/7/41 or 9/11/01. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were terrorist attacks from without; the attack on our nation’s Capitol was a terrorist attack from within.
I will confess, as I grew older, the patriotism my grandpa instilled in me had begun to wick away. At age 36, I’ve experienced two “once-in-a-lifetime” economic disasters just since I joined the workforce. I watched our nation enter a quixotic and endless war in Iraq founded on a lie. I opened my eyes to the hard truth that our nation is beholden to the corporate donors that line the pockets of our politicians. I’ve watched, time and again, as our politicians put taxpayer dollars in the coffers of billionaires while fighting tooth and nail to prevent regular citizens from getting the baseline help they need to put food on the table or survive a medical emergency without having to consider bankruptcy.
But on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, I realized that I’m still nurturing a flame of patriotism somewhere inside me. Because watching our home-grown domestic terrorists storm our nation’s Capitol, the very seat of our democracy, broke my heart. I was up until 5 a.m. scrolling through news articles and experiencing a cocktail of horrible emotions I hadn’t felt since September of 2001.
Defiled. That was the word that kept running through my mind. When something is made foul, dirty, or unclean. Polluted, tainted, and debased. Desecrated.
These terrorists defiled our nation that day. And make no mistake, they are terrorists. They certainly aren’t protesters; they switched from protesters to terrorists the moment they busted down the doors and windows of the Capitol and slithered inside. They also aren’t ANTIFA plants or any other such nonsense.
They certainly were not brave or noble or patriotic. I watched the video of Ashli Babbitt, one of five casualties that day, shot in the neck by Capitol police as she crawled through a window. She died in a pool of her own blood, wrapped in a Trump flag. For all their big talk and tactical gear, not one of her compatriots thought to apply pressure to the wound. Instead, they simply milled about in shock, as though they never expected their little game to have real-world consequences.
I also watched the video of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick getting dragged into the angry mob. He was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher. On Saturday, my own Congressman Morgan Griffith, who has spent the last two months doing his level best to stoke the fires of conspiracy and paranoia that directly led to this attack, shared that we should honor Sicknick’s memory on National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day. Griffith’s feckless hypocrisy would be laughable if it weren’t so stomach-turning.
The closest thing to a positive emotion that I feel toward these insurrectionists is pity, because at heart, they are a pitiable lot. For whatever reasons, they bought all the whackjob conspiracy theories hook, line, and sinker. For this, most of the blame goes toward the Republican politicians (looking at you again, Morgan Griffith) who refused to speak out against those theories until after the blood was already on their hands. These people truly believed that once inside the Capitol, some magical switch would flip, Trump would win the election, and his enemies would be hanged in a kangaroo court while they watched. When that didn’t happen, they had nothing left to do but wander around, take some selfies, break into a few offices, and steal whatever wasn’t nailed down.
One wonders what would have happened if our elected officials hadn’t been hustled into a safe room. Given the fact that several of the terrorists were spotted carrying weapons and zip tie handcuffs, I doubt the end result would have been a stern lecture.
In the end, of course, these folks did accomplish a few things. They slightly delayed the certification of the Electoral College votes. They caused five people to die. And they permanently damaged our nation’s standing in the eyes of the world.
Perhaps that last sentence sounds hyperbolic, but the damage has already been done. How can America ever again condemn insurrection abroad when video exists of a man carrying a Confederate flag through our nation’s Capitol (something, by the way, that never once was allowed to happen between 1860 and 1865)? How can we brag of our military might when we failed to prevent a couple thousand untrained domestic terrorists with no concrete plan from hammering their way into the seat of our democracy? How can we ever again boast about American Exceptionalism, that concept that our nation is somehow unique and special, when we displayed to the world an absolute clown show of a coup attempt that made us look like a third-rate banana republic?
The terrorists who stormed the Capitol firmly believed that they were patriots restoring America to glory. In reality, they were traitors who diminished America’s standing so profoundly that it may never be fully restored. At the very least, it will take decades if not generations to rebuild.
I can already hear the complaints about this column. “Stick to funny stuff.” “Fake news.” And of course, “They’re patriots, not terrorists or Nazis or traitors.”
In rebuttal, I can say that I look forward to the day that I can just stick to funny stuff, but right now, a certain moral obligation keeps getting in the way. For the “fake news” crowd, there’s no sense in arguing against them; they don’t live in reality and it’s a pointless effort.
But for those who say that these folks aren’t terrorists or Nazis or traitors … I have some bad news.
There’s a problem with the way we’ve always approached the Nazis. We treat them as though they were somehow different, that the people who joined the Nazi party were born with a kernel of evil in their hearts. In reality, the vast majority of Nazis and Nazi supporters were middle-class folks who maybe didn’t like what Hitler had to say, but liked his promise to lift Germany out of its post-war economic devastation. Others were people who latched onto his simple answers to complex problems, blaming minorities and immigrants as the reason for their own struggles. Others were simply happy to find a place where they felt, for the first time in their lives, like they truly belonged.
No, they weren’t born evil. They were painfully human, and so were the insurrectionists who rose up against our democracy on Jan. 6 for eerily similar reasons.
Over the coming weeks, I have a sinking feeling that we’re going to be subjected to calls for unity, admonitions that we should move on and keep our eyes on a brighter future.
But I’ll tell you what needs to happen. What needs to happen is that every man and woman who trespassed inside and defiled the Capitol on Jan. 6 should be charged with treason, and every fire-stoking politician who supported Trump’s baseless lies that led to that dark day should be charged with sedition.
If these people cannot be considered guilty of these crimes, then who possibly could be?
People must be held accountable for their actions. If we don’t show these terrorists and their enablers that an attempted coup has consequences, we’ll wish we had when they try it again.
God help us all on Jan. 20.