There are moments, experiences, that change us forever.
One of mine was the arrival of my draft notice. Serving in the military gave me a heightened work ethic. I went from flunking out of Boise Junior College prior to military service to making the honor roll at the University of Idaho.
Dreams can change our lives. In a dream that I was in imminent danger of drowning, my last thought was that I should have done more to help other people. It was the inspiration for volunteering at a homeless shelter.
The 9/11 attack, horrifying as it was, changed us for the better in some ways. It united us, made us safer. We became more vigilant. Our intelligence community has since thwarted hundreds of terrorist plots, and when a beautiful new building was built on the site of the Twin Towers, it showed the world our resilience. We were proud to be Americans.
Now we have Jan. 6 – a domestic 9/11 attack that changed the way the world saw us.
For most of our lives, America has been seen as a beacon of democracy. We had loyal allies and were widely admired in other countries. When I was stationed in Europe in the Navy, it was common to see framed photographs of President John Kennedy prominently displayed in Europeans’ homes.
The extent to which that has changed was revealed by news stories reporting that people in other countries either felt sorry for us or were laughing at us. World leaders laughed at our president when he spoke at the United Nations, something that once would have been unimaginable.
How will the attack on the nation’s capitol change the way the world sees us? And, more importantly, how will it change us?
Reporting in the wake of the attack showed that it was even worse than we thought, more calculated and potentially more deadly.
The insurrectionists not only wanted to hang Vice President Mike Pence, they erected gallows with a noose. They were hunting down him and others in the hope, according to some reports, of assassinating them. They had guns, pipe bombs, Molotov cocktails …
At least one was wearing a 6MWE shirt referencing the Holocaust: “Six Million Wasn’t Enough.”
Is this who we are?
No. Most Americans have nothing in common with those who embrace racism and want to overthrow our democracy and murder our elected officials. The great majority of Americans find those things appalling.
For too long, however, many of us have taken our democracy for granted. Now we know just how fragile it is. If good can come from the events of this historic January, it’s that it will be be a wakeup call that shines a light on how close we’ve come to losing our way of life and what we can do to keep that from happening again.
How the nation responds to assaults on our democracy isn’t solely up to Congress and the new president. It’s up to all of us.
There’s no better example of what ails this country than that of a newly elected congresswoman from Georgia. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene introduced articles of impeachment against Joe Biden the day after he was inaugurated. That’s precisely the kind of attitude we don’t need.
What do we need? For starters, we can stop hating people because their beliefs are different than ours. Accommodating opposing viewpoints is, or at least it was, part of living in a democracy.
If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I’ve looked down on people, made cynical comments about them, even been tempted to write one off as a friend because of views she held that I considered stupid.
Maybe I was the one acting stupidly. We could all do with a bit more humility and tolerance.
It wouldn’t kill us to try talking to each other again. We all have people in our lives – friends, relatives, co-workers – that we can’t talk to about politics. There’s one in my own family. Merely broaching the subject of politics is likely to lead to an argument, hard feelings, possibly estrangement.
If we agreed to start talking civilly to one another about our differences, we might actually find some common ground. We might at least partially bridge the divide that separates us. We’re all Americans, after all. That ought to count for something.
Preserving democracy requires us to be involved with it. I’m ashamed to say that in some elections I’ve left boxes blank because I didn’t know enough about the candidates. They were for relatively minor offices, but even minor officials sometimes have major impacts.
When it’s time to vote again, we have an obligation to do our homework and vote intelligently. Rather than voting for candidates simply because their names sound familiar or because they have a “D” or an “R” after them, voting responsibly means studying their positions, their track records, what they’ve done and what they’ve failed to do.
And regardless of how you voted, we owe our new president a chance to prove himself. As he said in his inauguration speech Wednesday, America’s better angels have always prevailed. Let’s give him and ourselves the chance to let that happen again.
If you believe in prayer, this would be a good time to pray for our country as well.
Maybe, just maybe, this is one of those moments that will change us for the better.