There is an oft-quoted Bengali phrase which roughly translates to, “when the entire city burns, the temples are not safe either.” It is supposed to mean that just because we wish that some places or things were immune to the general ravage of the times we live in, does not make it so. These lines are foremost on my mind now, as I recall the footage of what transpired in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021.
There is some irony in how the country that reportedly conducts preemptive security surveillance on, and often goes to preemptive war against, anyone it deems as a threat, just had an eclectic group of rabble rousers just walk into the capital, into the senate building, and as some internet memes have pointed out, literally just took a stand. But maybe this was not an intelligence agency failure, just a failure of intelligence.
Levity aside, what happened at the Capitol is a serious concern, because it breaks a mental barrier. Americans, and to be honest much of the world, would like to think of Washington D.C. as being impregnable. While verbal tirade between senators and politicians becomes increasingly common, I do not think anyone ever anticipated a march on the Senate much like the ones in many developing countries, often instigated by America itself. But now, a mental barrier has come down. If this has happened once, this can happen again. And next time, someone better at coups might be at the helm. In that sense, this incident has something in common with the Pearl Harbour bombing, or the attacks on the World Trade Centre. It shows everyone that America is not some unbreachable holy land. I suppose the fact that this time it was Americans breaching the walls makes it somewhat more disturbing.
Many comments have already been made about how law enforcement was polite and positively respectful of the group last week, who made no pretenses about how their purpose for being there was to assault US senators, bring bodily harm to the Vice President, and essentially leave no stone unturned so that their leader can remain in office, the will of the people be damned. That leader, Donald Trump, referred to these protesters who were vandalizing the very symbols of the democracy that he took an oath to serve, as patriots, as fine people, and even said that he loved them. If this were to happen in a Middle Eastern or South Asian country, the United States would have sent a shipment of democracy by now. However, all of these comments have been made. We know these things, and whether we admit or not, we are right to be concerned about US politics. A nation with such military might should probably not fall into the hands of some of the people we saw on TV last week with their megaphones. In some weird irony, the US argument about why it has a right to ensure nuclear technology does not land in the hands of the Taliban, has turned the other way round.
However, something else is topmost on my mind. Since November 2016, a lot of comparisons have been made between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler. While I am no fan of either, my personal takeaway always was, that is not a fair comparison. Hitler, monster that he was, had a track record of being a soldier and a gifted administrator. Trump on the other hand always seemed like a singularly incompetent person to me. But now it is making me think. Maybe this time, America got lucky. The demagogue in the White House, calling for his loyal base to physically intervene and help him flip the results of a proper election, was just too incompetent to eventually pull it off. What if the next demagogue is somewhere right now, taking notes, learning from the mistakes Trump made? In light of the Hitler comparison, what if they have knowledge of military strategy? What if their fan base is not an eclectic mix of conspiracy theorists and rednecks, but trained veterans who know how to fight a war of attrition?
I am not claiming to have answers, as usual. However, the United States needs to take a long hard look at every aspect of where they have arrived at as a nation. The lives lost in the pandemic, the bitter animosity between people who disagree, the lack of empathy for others, and yes, the anti-intellectualism, has done enough damage to the once great nation already. However, things can get far worse. And whether we are ready to admit or not, a world where America fails, is going to be a very scary world to live in.
Hammad Ali is a PhD student and a lover of fountain pens.