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WHEN incoming US president Joe Biden took to the podium following the violent and illegal January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, he reiterated what he and most US citizens believe the country represents: a “beacon of light and hope for democracy.”
Biden declared that the US’s reputation as the apotheosis of freedom had been besmirched by the actions of outgoing US President Donald Trump’s supporters, who, incited by the president himself, stormed the US Capitol.
This deep-rooted mythology, effectively US exceptionalism, stakes a place for the US in the world as the bearer of freedom and liberty, and as morally superior to other countries.
It is true that the US, even this past November, holds free and fair elections, despite efforts from Republicans to disenfranchise black voters, and despite possible foreign interference by Russian operatives.
This week’s victory in the Georgia Senate run-off election by two Democrats, one black and one Jewish, affirmed this.
It is true that the press still enjoys freedom of expression, although under the Trump regime, journalists’ lives have been put at risk.
And it is true that, despite mob efforts on Wednesday, both the US House and Senate returned to the scene of the mayhem to complete the formal process of counting the electoral college votes and affirming Biden as the winner of last November’s presidential election.
That said, it’s time for the US to get off its self-appointed pedestal and take a long hard look in the mirror of history.
The US is a country that has overthrown more democratically elected foreign governments than any other.
Its white immigrants wrought a genocide on the country’s native inhabitants, then exiled them to reservations, condemning them to the worst level of poverty and deprivation of any demographic in the country.
Today, Native Americans are suffering higher rates of Covid-19 infections than any other group.
It is a country that kidnapped and imported Africans like chattel, enslaved them and then, once emancipated, discriminated against and disenfranchised them.
The disproportionate violence used against black protesters during the civil rights era returned to our streets under the Trump administration.
The US is a country that has gone to war on a lie (eg Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin; Iraq and weapons of mass destruction).
It is the only country that has used nuclear weapons to murder civilians — in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The list could go on.
In his January 6 remarks, Biden said that “the scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect the true America. Do not represent who we are.”
But it is exactly who we are. Almost 75 million people freely voted for a man who lies, incites violence, denigrates women, praises neonazis and white supremacists and endorses insane conspiracy theories.
While only a tiny fraction of them rioted on Capitol Hill, their support for a second Trump presidency enabled such appalling scenes of criminality.
These have occurred not only on January 6 but beginning on August 12 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a supporter of Unite the Right murdered a young woman by ploughing his vehicle into counter-protesters.
That vicious act was rewarded with Trump’s praise of the “very fine people, on both sides.”
We cannot continue to ignore our history, whose legacy we are seeing today, not just in the largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests, met with phalanxes of armed police and National Guard, beaten and tear-gassed, but in Wednesday’s mob at the Capitol, most of whom were allowed to walk calmly away from acts of vandalism, trespass and even sedition.
The US is not just about those of us who, as Biden said on Wednesday, believe in “honour, decency, respect, tolerance.” That is not “who we’ve always been.”
To say that is to whitewash our own history. But it is who many, hopefully most of us, aspire to be.
To get there, we cannot continue to downplay or dismiss what we saw on January 6 as an aberration, a momentary interruption of our glorious democracy.
The white supremacist, nativist views spewed by Trump’s insurrectionists are embedded in our history and culture.
We are, as black commentator Van Jones said on CNN as the events of January 6 unfolded, at a crossroads.
“Is this the end of something or the beginning of something?” Jones asked.
“Let’s declare that this is the end of something. This can never happen again. We need to snuff this out tonight.”
Linda Pentz Gunter is a writer based in Takoma Park, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC.
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