The Awful Symbolism of the Assault on Our Capitol
Among the many ugly symbols on display in the attack on the U.S. Capitol, the event itself stands as the most offensive symbol of all
The attack on the United States Capitol by insurrectionist Trump supporters was awful for a litany of reasons, but it’s symbolism of the event itself that makes it so unique.
Yes, there were Confederate flags. Yes, there was that casually horrifying Camp Auschwitz hoodie. There was the QAnon “Q” worn by many, signifying alliance to cultish conspiracy theories. But these were borne by individuals, so many others who broke into the Capitol could claim a sort of plausible deniability: They will protest that they’re not aligned with those particular symbols. But by participating in breeching the Capitol building at all, they affixed themselves a larger symbolic event.
Although we’re known to be a surprisingly cooperative species, we human beings have also long resorted to violence to get our way. We attacked people physically. We bludgeoned them. We went to war. We, well, beat the shit out of each other. You don’t need a compelling argument, when you have a club. Or, for that matter, a gun. But over time, we have learned to approach our differences differently and in increasingly complex and organized ways. To argue our points of view. To discuss them. To present evidence. And to vote. And that’s how we make progress, even if in fits and starts, in this gloriously imperfect thing we call democracy. Or civilization, for that matter.
Like the various chambers of government worldwide, the Capitol represents a great achievement in this evolution of human cooperation. It’s the seat of the legislative branch of our federal government. It’s where our various elected officials come together and argue on our behalf, despite their diverse differences and sometimes even reach agreements. And whatever the flaws of this process in this venue, it’s the best we’ve been able to do so far. As Winston Churchill said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Because those who fell upon the Capitol had no real arguments or evidence to present—only misinformation and conspiracy theories and repeatedly debunked claims of fraud—they fell upon the old ways. Violence. Destruction and theft of property. Attacking the press and destroying their equipment. Assaulting the police. Placing pipe bombs. Beating one officer to death with a fire extinguisher. Even pissing and defecating on the Capitol itself. As a secular human being, I hesitate to reach for the religiously-loaded word “desecration,” but that’s what their actions amounted to. They violated the symbolic sanctity of the Capitol. Because however faulty, ugly and awkward our government can be, that building does symbolize our fumbling efforts to resolve our many differences in a relatively civilized fashion and to move on. To progress.
These rioters threw in the towel on civilization though. They may as well have burned down a cathedral. Because in a secular society—which the United States most certainly was intended to be—the Capitol should be among our most sacred spaces.
Many of these same individuals, no doubt, seethed at the destruction, defacement and removal of Confederate monuments this past summer. Monuments which glorify a defeated enemy of the United States. Monuments which symbolize slavery and oppression. Resistance to progress.
But they had no issue at all with storming and defiling one of our greatest and most significant symbols of all. And only because their arguments failed in the arena of democracy. Because the facts—and indeed reality—were not on their side. The brute force of violence was all they had left to contribute.
So they abdicated their roles in our democracy by storming the building with some even reaching for guns, bombs, piss and shit to force themselves upon us.
That’s what makes the event so shocking.