Does that star-spangled banner yet wave?
So asked Francis Scott Key the last time the Capitol was breached. It was more than 206 years ago when Key composed the lyrics to our eventual national anthem, after the British set Washington ablaze and lit up Fort McHenry with a ferocious bombardment. As Key was delighted to discover as he peered through his spyglass, yes, the flag still waved.
On the eve of the inauguration, and just a short time out from the shocking desecration of our seat of government, it’s imperative that we take up Key’s question again. Obviously, the literal flag is still there. But what of the principles and commitments it proclaims?
Were Key to come back today, he would find the “flag” of democratic government and rule of law still flying, thank goodness. But the assault on democracy has left that flag torn and frayed.
Time to repair the damage
Its repair is the work that our politicians, citizens, and institutions must now undertake, motivated by the too-vivid demonstration of what can happen when neglect and malevolence team up to attack.
The work begins with accountability for those who instigated and perpetrated the Jan. 6 debacle. We’re hearing calls for unity, calls to put the terrible incident behind us. No. The country cannot move ahead until the wrongdoers have faced the consequences of their colossal lies and treasonous deeds, and until protections are erected against any repeat performances.
The work continues with ramped-up civic education, for children and adults alike, with the aim of not only conveying truthful understanding of how our government works but fostering appreciation for its virtues.
Do those responsible for the attack on the Capitol understand the enormity of the damage they wrought? How incredibly foul it was to spread malicious misinformation about a responsibly held vote, to pressure election officials — even the Vice President — to throw out the people’s decision and hand Donald Trump an illegitimate second term? Do those who stormed the Capitol building comprehend what a precious thing they disrupted — the peaceful of transfer of power — and the fact that their very ability to assemble in Washington is the fruit of the democratic government they vie to tear down?
It’s deeply disillusioning to see how many Americans don’t know, or don’t care.
Listening to popular rhetoric, we are daily assaulted with utter ignorance about our system of government. Take, for instance, the First Amendment and its protection of free speech. It seems lost on many that free speech rights are not a permission slip to say whatever you want, wherever and whenever you want, truthfulness and consequences be damned.
The public needs to understand that this crucial constitutional protection is about our ability, when speaking for ourselves as citizens in public settings, to candidly express our opinion about the government and the issues before it without being punished by that government.
It comes with responsibilities. Just as you can’t trigger a dangerous stampede by falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, you can’t spread lies that are designed to inflame public opinion and lead some to storm the Capitol. About things like, oh, a “stolen” presidential election.
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Somehow, we must contain our tendency to fall for mass delusions of the sort we have seen so often this century. Seemingly no amount of evidence or logic can persuade many that COVID-19 is real, for example, and the 2020 presidential election was secure and accurate.
The willingness of so many to disbelieve what is demonstrably true, and to believe what is demonstrably false, could prove fatal to the continued functioning of our civil society. Citizens must be equipped with information — real, correct information — to participate responsibly as members of society and the ultimate decision-makers in our system of government.
All of us, present company included, have more to learn about our civic institutions and how to be good, effective citizens in this vexing time. The past few weeks have furnished quite an education: in particular, a chilling lesson that when our democracy is under dire threat, there is no recourse beyond us, the people.
Time to stop the subversion of our democracy
If you’re like me, there have been many moments lately when you’ve witnessed unprecedented, anxiety-inducing attempts to subvert democracy and you’ve wondered out loud, “They won’t be able to do that, will they?”
We’ve learned that they will. Unless we stop them.
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The guard rails have held for the most part. But only because Americans held them in place, whether it’s been the voters who denied Trump his precious re-election ballots; or judges who ruled on the basis of law rather than political preferences; or state and local election officials who resisted enormous pressure, often from their political allies, even from the president, to manipulate results; or the Vice President of the United States, who, after four years of obsequious fealty to Trump, finally stood up to him and refused to go extra-constitutional and throw out the Electoral College on the day that will go down in infamy.
The guardrails bear the dents of the severe test that we’ve passed. The flag still flies, torn. When it comes to repairing the civic goods represented by that tattered flag, we’re Betsy Ross. We’re the ones — the only ones — with the needles and thread: our voice, our vote, our love of country, and our integrity as conscientious office-holders and responsible citizens.
A member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors, Tom Krattenmaker writes on religion and values in public life. His most recent book is Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower. Follow him on Twitter: @TKrattenmaker
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Repairing our democracy after Trump's destruction