Picture it: an incumbent President who loses a fair, free, and legitimate election to his challenger refuses to accept defeat. For weeks, he tries to overturn the outcome in dozens of court cases but gets rebuffed by judges at every turn. Undeterred, the disgruntled leader tries to sway public opinion, and implores his Vice President to overturn the counting of the Electoral College votes in Congress. When his Veep demurs, citing the Constitution, the President Incites his followers to carry out a coup, storming the Capitol Building, killing and injuring the cops whose job it is to protect Congress, and plotting to imprison Senators or Representatives with flexible handcuffs used by police to make mass arrests. For hours, the insurrectionists run rampant while members of Congress are evacuated one step ahead of the howling mob. The President who stirred this horror show up, meanwhile, is ensconced in the White House, gleefully watching it unfold on live TV.
Unfortunately, this is no Tom Clancy novel, but grim, stark reality. These events were witnessed by the whole world in real time on January 6, as Congress tried to meet and fulfill its Constitutional duty to count Electoral College votes. Supporters of the now-former President battered their way into the repository of our representative democracy, and attempted to carry out the violent overthrow of the government we, the governed, had consented to with our votes. In due course, the government, shocked by this assault on its vitals by its own radicalized citizens turned domestic terrorists, was moved to action. The Army National Guard was called up and deployed in Washington, to secure the inauguration of President Biden against any further attempts at disrupting the transition of power. Although the outgoing President did everything in his power to prevent the incoming President from taking office, the military, long a deliberately neutral player in political affairs, found itself in the position of guaranteeing the safe execution of the people’s will. This is the condition I found our nation’s capital in when I visited Washington this past Friday.
My purpose was business; I was there to report on Biden’s inclusion of several LGBTQ nominees to major posts in his administration. That task accomplished, I started back towards Union Station for my train home. I had time, there was no rush. I hadn’t gone far before I became profoundly disturbed at the scene all around me. There were troops everywhere I looked. Soldiers, cage fencing, razor wire, and M-16 rifles strapped to every chest. Military trucks, Humvees, armored personnel carriers, half-tracks rumbled by as I walked DC’s windswept streets. What you see of this on television or the Internet scarcely does justice to the immense scope of the operation. When platoon after platoon of young men and women in Army Combat Uniforms (ACUs) are filing past you, that’s as real as it gets. The most chilling thing about these troops is that they are here to potentially fight other Americans.
This is where we are because this is where our last President took us. We are in this fraught state of affairs because a demagogue, enrobed in the awesome powers of his office chose to use those powers to further divide the American people, and place his imprimatur on the acts of violence and murder his followers eagerly committed. We are here because those within his own party who could have stood up to the former President’s brazen instigation, instead meekly acquiesced to his vile rhetoric. So, now, we witness the horrifying spectacle of these troops at the Capitol, on the National Mall, and around all the buildings where the federal government carries out the business of the people. The troops, who are our people too, stood ready to apply whatever force they had to use, to ensure that this business was done.
The soldiers are a cross-section of America. I spoke with several, all of whom requested anonymity. They came to DC from states like Montana, Florida, and my home state of Pennsylvania. Universally, they all stated that their presence in DC was “their duty”, and they understood the gravity of their deployment. Many expressed dismay that otherwise ordinary people would go to such extremes, but the situation being such, these kids took it pragmatically. Not quite a fait accompli, but a message, they said, from the Pentagon. So far, it seems the message is being heard loud and clear: those insurrectionists, seemingly so boastful when they outnumbered the defenders of the Capitol, “aren’t so full of piss and vinegar” now that the actual army with actual rifles and actual battalions, was in town, as one particularly colorful sergeant described it to me.
Before too long, most of these young soldiers and Marines will return home, but thousands of their colleagues will remain behind until at least this spring. That garrison will keep standing watch over our Capitol and our monuments, prepared in all their varied specialties to prevent a repeat of the raid on our democracy that stunned us all. That they are here at all should give us pause, for this is the state of our country today. Even if you’re a continent away, the presence of these troops touches you. As disturbing as this is, it’s also a warning: beware to whom you award power, lest he or she try to usurp it in devastating ways. Let that be the mission these kids with the helmets and rifles accomplish. If we remember to choose our leaders with the care that decision deserves, they won’t ever have to return here for such a frightening purpose.