When I was a newspaper reporter assigned to cover Congress, there were long days (many of which melted into nights) when I would walk its marble hallways as in a dream, marveling at the colorfully tiled floors and the walls painted from baseboards to the crowns of the ceiling with elaborate scenes from American history.
All the beauty and creativity that generations of Americans have brought to what is our temple of democracy — the dome of the Capitol depicts the apotheosis of George Washington — became especially poignant after 9/11. We were told we were working in the terrorists’ next target. Sometimes, when going about my rounds, I would stare hard at my favorite things about the Capitol, to fix them in my memory. Could evil efface all this?
Little did I know that the terror would be coming from within.
“Suddenly, two or three men in black surrounded me and demanded to know who I worked for,” New York Times photographer Erin Schaff wrote of her experience in the Capitol. “Grabbing my press pass, they saw that my ID said The New York Times and became really angry. They threw me to the floor, trying to take my cameras. I started screaming for help as loudly as I could. No one came. People just watched.”
This is what it has come to here in the home of the free, the brave and the First Amendment: a bunch of thugs beating up a woman because of what she does for a living. Do we think the fact that our president has repeatedly called the press “enemies of the people” possibly could have anything to do with it?
The people who ransacked our Capitol last week are modern day barbarians (did you see the picture of the guy with the horned helmet and painted face?). That they were allowed to get this far should give us all pause.
How did the nation that liberated Europe and Asia from dictatorship during World War II descend to these depths of depravity? How do we begin to climb out?
To the politicians who thought they could surf the tsunami of populist anger and now find yourselves swamped by it: Lead, don’t follow. Decide whom you want to represent: the best of America, or its dregs? Dog whistlers always think they can control the beast they summon. History always proves them wrong.
To my fellow journalists: I share your skepticism and your anger. But let’s stifle the impulse to say, “I told you so,” and to dismiss, with the jerk of a knee, the 11th hour conversions of President Trump’s backers. Let’s give those who say they want to rebuild the Party of Lincoln a chance to prove their sincerity. Let’s make room for nuance, changes of heart and stories that go beyond gotcha. And above all, let’s get out of the TV studios and back to talking to people, especially those who felt they’ve been left out or sneered out of our stories.
To my fellow educators, from those who teach kindergarten to those who advise doctoral dissertations: Let’s double down on our mission. Let’s remind students democracy is a participatory sport and that they must train to stay in the game. Along with our rights go responsibilities: responsibilities to educate ourselves, to use our critical faculties, to develop the judgment to know when it is time to stand our ground and when it is time to change our minds. In this digital age, we must give our students the tools they need to distinguish propganda from legitimate information on the internet. Censorship is not the answer. Education is.
To my neighbors who are still flying Trump flags: Let the scales fall from your eyes. I plead with you to find a better standard-bearer, someone who can articulate your anger constructively instead of exploiting it for personal gain. Legitimate causes and grievances should be able to find legitimate representatives — representatives who are willing to work within the democratic system, not tear it down.
To my journalism students: Be skeptical, not cynical. Not all politicians are the same. It is up to us to help our audience make distinctions. Our system is flawed, but it doesn’t have to be fatally so. It is up to us to document the problems and report ways to fix them. Keep your eyes, ears and — above all — your hearts open. Keep your critical faculties sharp. These are dark times, but you can be bearers of the light.
Who else will defend our shining city on the hill if not all of us?
Kathy Kiely is the Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism and a former member of the congressional Standing Committee of Correspondents.