A century hence, historians more dispassionate than today’s pundits may well view 2020 as an aberration, a year of great heartache and pain, death and misery, but not a catastrophe of civilization. Or, the historians may examine the entrails of this year to determine how America lost itself so completely just two decades after the close of “The American Century,” the exceptionalist title some accord to the 20th Century.
We will know more after November 3, 2020 — whether America chooses to find a new pathway out of the pain and sorrow of this moment, or whether the anger and treachery and hatred and debauched levers of political power somehow manage to elect a continuation of the tyrannical movement, a monstrous devolution of this once-proud beacon of freedom into the worst kind of authoritarian nightmare. If We the People choose the monstrous evil of authoritarian rule, the same 22nd Century historians combing through the debacle will have to figure out whether the choice was freely made or wholly manipulated by foreign powers hellbent on the destruction of the longest, richest and most advanced democracy in human history. They will have to assess the weight of collaboration of American citizens in the destruction of their own freedoms through the mindless embrace of empty demagoguery claiming to “make America great again,” a villainous phrase of utter contempt for the hard-fought promise of freedom and justice for all persons.
Those historians would be tempted to trace the destruction of the American Experiment to the election of 2016, but they would be wrong to assume that the 2016 election triggered the American catastrophe.
To find the true cause of the destruction of American Democracy, the historians would do better to examine what modern American generations once thought was our worst day, September 11, 2001. The historians should plumb the depths of the the forces that led up to that awful day and the long chain of political and governmental mistakes that eroded the foundations of this nation, setting up the final collapse of Democracy.
Osama bin Laden may be long dead, but the terrorists may still win.
September 11 gave license to the long rise of white supremacy and xenophobia, always lurking beneath the surface of American life, erupting in various ugly episodes across the 230 years of the nation’s existence, but rising in new and more virulent forms after the destruction of that awful day. After September 11, Muslims, persons of Middle Eastern nationalities, and, by extension, persons with darker skin, people who spoke with accents, who did not conform to white American language and customs, all became suspects in our national quest to restore a sense of safety and security. The government led the movement: “If you see something, say something” became our national motto. Guy with a beard and turban at the next table? Call the police! Woman in hijab? Arrest her! Black Americans already knew that pain all too well, and now it was extended to so many others. We willingly surrendered our civil liberties in airports and other public places, consenting to unprecedented surveillance on every street corner so that we could be sure we were safe from harm. The more we gave in to the official demands for curtailment of free movement, the more our freedom eroded.
But, wait — didn’t We the People elect Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 in reaction to all of that? Didn’t we embrace “Hope and Change” as our motto in the “post-racial” dream of the United States? History may well reflect that President Obama’s election was, indeed, a genuine effort of a good portion of the American electorate to move past the fears of September 11 and push toward a new social compact in a far more diverse nation. But his election also poured fuel on the fires of the racial hatred smoldering in too many places in this nation, bursting forth in the election of 2016 as a triumph for those citizens who prefer authoritarian government to crush and eradicate “the other” from this land. The battle cry was “Build the wall!” The war against immigrants waged by the current administration has long roots in American history, but can also trace its most recent lineage to September 11’s unleashing of fear and hatred against “the other,” a strain of ethnic hatred inextricably entwined with the racial hatred that has plagued this nation for four centuries.
Today, September 11, 2020 we stand atop a new pile of bodies and rubble — nearly 200,000 Americans dead due to Covid-19, more than six million sick, the economy debilitated, Americans restless and afraid and bitter amid waves of domestic violence and relentless scenes of police brutality and racial injustice. The current president of this nation denies the truth of Coronavirus, expresses no remorse for the death toll that his lies made so much worse, even as he stokes the fires of white supremacy and flies from scene to scene of racial torment to do photo ops with police and military personnel while snubbing the Black Americans who are in so much pain. He recently said that he feels no obligation to try to understand that pain.
Meanwhile, he has ordered his government to purge every federal agency of anti-racist training; he has threatened to withhold funds from school systems that use the “1619 Project” on the history of slavery in their curriculum. The authoritarian playbook is clear: deny responsibility for what is wrong; use police and military as a shield against citizens; stoke racial and ethnic conflict; control curricula and repress academic freedom so that people cannot learn about other ideas, develop contrary points of view, challenge the leader’s tryrannical acts. Future historians may well ask why American in 2020 had amnesia about the lessons of history since the cycle of democracy’s decline into tyranny is as old as Plato’s cave. We might have thought that the lessons of Germany in the 1930’s would be compelling enough to avoid repeating the mistakes of a once-proud people.
Is there any hope for America? Sure. If we hope to have 22nd Century historians be able to tell the other story — the story of the American Experiment’s trials and triumph over authoritarian forces and racial hatred, the resurgence of the more open, more hospitable, more welcoming America once known as a beacon of hope in the world, then we must make sure that in the next two months every single citizen with a vote exercises that obligation whether by mail or in person, whether by early voting on or November 3.
Preventing the further unraveling of American Democracy must start on November 3, 2020. We still have to deal with the long aftershocks of September 11, 2001 — they continue to roil our society. But restoring leadership capable of leading this nation to a better place — a place that restores the most fundamental values of liberty and justice for all — is a first and necessary step toward moving our nation away from the precipice of tyranny.
We remember with sorrow all those who died on September 11 and in its aftermath. We pray that we will never have the bitter experience again of being attacked. We also pray for those who are suffering so much pain and loss right now. We must join in solidarity to vow to make this nation whole and hopeful once more.