When the rule of law breaks down, no one is safe

The assault on the Capitol was shocking and disgraceful. It’s also a reminder that everyone’s rights, including minority groups, depends on the preservation of order and respect for democracy.

Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

What happened at the Capitol on the day both Houses of Congress assembled in a joint session to certify the votes of the Electoral College in the 2020 presidential election was a disgrace. In an unprecedented scene, a violent mob protesting the results broke into the building and sent both the House of Representatives and the Senate scurrying for safety, temporarily halting the quadrennial ritual and providing scenes of the riot that will live in infamy in American history.

The only possible decent response to this appalling episode is the harshest condemnation of those involved and even more sadly, those, including the president of the United States, who encouraged the mob that committed the violence. Like a great many protests against police brutality last summer that may have started peacefully but ended in riots, those who helped incite this event ought to be held accountable for the consequences of their actions.

The excuse for what happened stems from some of President Donald Trump’s supporters believing him when he says the election was stolen from him. Both he and they have a right to express their views. The same can be said of those members of Congress who were also prepared to make a symbolic protest against the ritual acceptance of an outcome that had been certified by the states and confirmed by the courts. But the fact that this particular protest, which began with a mass rally near the Capitol at a rally on the Ellipse when the president made an incendiary speech, ended in violence is not a point for partisans to debate.

There can be no rationalizing or excusing what happened. Both sides in America’s tribal culture war that has defined the nation’s politics in recent years have much to apologize for, as the events of the last four years have proved. Still, this is not the moment for “whataboutism” or an exchange of accusations in which responsibility for these events can be deflected elsewhere. No matter which candidate you voted for in November—and whether you celebrated or mourned that outcome, or the results of the crucial Georgia Senate runoff races decided the night before the riot—there can be no debate about the unacceptable nature of what happened on the afternoon of Jan. 6.

While it’s hard to see beyond our outrage of the moment or our fear for the future of a republic in which the norms and traditions of democracy are so flagrantly flouted, there’s a broader point to be considered in the aftermath of this sad day. And it is one that should particularly resonate for the Jewish community.

Talk about the need to defend democracy has become commonplace on both sides of the political divide since both Republicans and Democrats now tend to conceive of each other as not being merely wrong, but both evil and lacking good motives. Irrespective of where you stand on the great issues of the day or what you think about the Nov. 3 presidential election, the problem with this sort of thinking is that it is itself a threat to democracy. If we can’t accept the idea that our opponents are decent people and that when they win, we must accept the outcome, then that is not merely a recipe for civil strife but also truly the end of democracy.

The first peaceful transfer of power took place in the year 1801 when the ruling Federalist Party, led by President John Adams, handed over the reins of power to Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic Republicans after losing the election of 1800. In a sense, that event completed the American Revolution. It proved that the republic that those two men—once close friends but who had since become the most bitter of political enemies—had helped found in 1776 would endure, rather than collapse into tyranny or autocracy like every previous attempt at republican government.

That transfer of power was neither amicable nor particularly civil. Rather than attend his rival’s inauguration, Adams left the capital in a huff the morning of his swearing-in—a precedent that may well be copied later this month when Trump must, like it or not, give way to President-elect Joe Biden.

The peaceful transfer of power is not merely a tradition that celebrates civility; it is integral to the preservation of the rule of law. And without the rule of law that restrains the brute passions of the moment, ordinary Americans, especially a religious minority, can never feel safe from potential violence from either hostile majorities or marginal extremists.

One of the scariest things about the riots that spread across the country last summer is that irrespective of concerns about police misconduct, the breakdown of the rule of law in many cities meant that no one could feel secure going about their daily lives, coupled with the added issue of being restricted by the coronavirus pandemic.

If America has been the freest, most secure and accepted Jewish community in the history of the Diaspora, it’s because it is a republic in which the preservation of the rule of law can be counted on.

Thus, the spectacle of an attack on the Capitol and the ritual process of the transfer of power is something no one who one values the tradition of an American public square—where all may gather or speak in safety no matter their race, color or creed—can view with equanimity.

Whether or not they may have a grievance of some kind or even if there were some merit to their complaints, when mobs attack democratic institutions and those who enforce the law, the foundations of the republic are shaken and the safety of the people, including those who are most dependent on these traditions, is called into question. That is why what happened at the Capitol should not only never be repeated—and those responsible for it punished—but that all people of goodwill, no matter their party affiliation, ethnicity or faith, must unambiguously condemn it.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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