While most people agree that those who attacked the American Capitol buildings on Jan. 6 should be arrested and charged for their crimes, some say the politicians who may have been behind the attack shouldn’t even be investigated.
Their argument is that there’s already enough polarization in the United States and this would make the situation worse.
History shows that such a course of action is very dangerous.
In order for a democracy to function, there must be respectful discussion of diverse opinions. That can’t happen if members of the U.S. Congress don’t feel safe.
How would any of us feel if our workplace was attacked? What if there was evidence that our co-workers revealed our whereabouts to an angry mob? How could we ever restore trust unless a proper investigation is completed and justice is served?
We need to understand the concept of forgiveness. It’s not something that can be imposed. Forgiveness must be a free choice made by each person who was offended. It’s easier to forgive if the offending party accepts accountability and chooses to make reparations, but even if this is the case, the person confessing knows that their forgiveness is not guaranteed.
With regard to the attack in Washington, D.C., we’re not only asking the innocent members of Congress to forgive, we’re asking the American people to pardon an assault on their democracy. Failure to accept responsibility, especially by those in government leadership positions, will create further polarization and resentment, and it will undermine people’s trust in their state.
Good people break laws, too. The difference is that they expect to be arrested and charged. They have faith that by putting themselves at risk in this way, they will expose the injustices in the legal system.
The sort of moral courage that was so admired in Representative John Lewis, who passed away in 2020, hasn’t yet been demonstrated by the Donald Trump supporters in Congress. Lewis broke laws he felt were unjust and was arrested 45 times during his life, including five times while he was a member of Congress. If Trump and his supporters aren’t willing to stand by their actions with integrity, they demonstrate the illegitimacy of their views and the weakness of their character.
American Republicans also need to recognize that their entire legitimacy as a political party is at stake in this moment. There are many Republicans who recognize that they’re being humiliated by the extremists who have been allowed to flourish under their banner in recent years. If the party doesn’t return to its principles, it may well disintegrate.
Those who propagate lies and are unwilling to accept responsibility for their actions are declaring that they lack a moral compass. Historically, we know what happens when society isn’t protected from such people.
Some have compared the Washington insurrection to Adolf Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. This may be an exaggeration but it’s a warning, nonetheless. The courts were quite lenient toward Hitler and his followers in their disastrous coup attempt. A few years later, Hitler was the supreme ruler of Germany and democracy vanished from the heart of Europe.
American playwright Sam Shepard said, “Democracy is a very fragile thing. As soon as you stop being responsible to it and allow it to turn to scare tactics, it’s no longer democracy, is it? It is something else. It may be an inch from totalitarianism.”
We can never take our democracy for granted and we need to recognize that its greatest defenders are integrity and accountability.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.