In 1933, as the Great Depression entered its darkest depths, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used his inauguration speech to calm unemployed and hungry masses, saying the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy made clear a vision for the country that would survive his assassination, saying “we choose to go to the moon.”
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan called out to our Cold War adversary, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Those words, aimed for the ears of the president of the Soviet Union, inspired German citizens to rise up a few years later and topple the Berlin Wall.
A president’s words have weight and influence, and the power of that high office carries a responsibility to speak for the good of the nation. It’s now clear for all to see that President Donald J. Trump’s words have served to undermine the will of the American electorate, stymie the peaceful transition of power following his Nov. 3 election defeat to Joe Biden, and further abuse his office by proclaiming baseless conspiracies of election fraud — and all before a protesting crowd of thousands prior to their march to lay siege on the Capitol building, a dark day for our democracy.
Our founders, however, also valued reasonable dissent. Thomas Jefferson wrote that it is “as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” However, they expected dissent to be open and honest, bringing people with different opinions together to enlighten each other and negotiate policies and solutions to problems that were the best for all involved.
Unfortunately, the political atmosphere in our country recently has been marked by an increasing intolerance. That atmosphere now shrouds the tragic storming of our nation’s Capitol on Wednesday by supporters of the president.
The crowd, inspired by Trump’s exhortations that they march on the Capitol to protest the Senate’s canvassing of the Electoral College vote, grew violent and stormed the building, forcing lawmakers to halt business and retreat to bunkers. Five people, including a Capitol police officer, died in the riot. One woman was fatally shot as she tried to climb through a window that had been shattered by protesters.
It’s not a question whether Trump inflamed the crowd, as they chanted, “Fight for Trump” during his rally. Members of the House of Representatives have drafted articles of impeachment against him. His fate will be determined by those who are authorized to do so; voters have done their part.
Those who freely chose to participate in a violent overthrow of our established order also must answer for their acts.
All those involved in Wednesday’s insurrection must be held to account for their actions to the fullest extent of the law. Any actions, however — including any taken against the president — must be taken in the name of justice, not retribution. And they must be taken only by those who are authorized to do so.
Everyone else — from members of Trump’s administration, to members of Congress, to members of the citizenry at large — should be alarmed at the devolution of our political process and recognize that civility is a value in a democracy that fosters conversational persuasion — to seek to bring change through being understood and understanding others. Without it, America will lose in the end. With it, we will rise and truly know what is great.
Let us insist that those who represent us in the halls of governance remember that they have been commissioned to devote their efforts to the political process, which by definition requires negotiation and compromise, and recognize the synergy that comes from weaving different views into one larger, stronger, solution.