The passage of time is a continuum, and it is relentless. After a year of the spread of a deadly disease, shootings of unarmed Black Americans, protests in major cities, wildfires in the West, and 30 named storms, it is no wonder that most people were thankful to see the end of 2020. But the arc of time is not bound by the clock or the calendar.
According to the theoretical physicist Stephen W. Hawking, time is a “personal concept, relative to the observer who measured it.” The end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 is no watershed moment. For the past four months, the coronavirus has surged to its highest level throughout the country. Martha’s Vineyard is no exception. By the end of January, the national death rate will be over 400,000.
In the first week of the new year, for the first time since 1815 when the British burned the relatively new Capitol building in Washington, this symbol of American democracy was yet again attacked, ransacked, and defiled. Only this time, the attack was conducted not by a foreign foe, but some of our own people, angry and disgruntled for a variety of deep-seated reasons.
Despite the lack of evidence of voter fraud or irregularities in the 2020 presidential election, and the decisions of more than 60 courts confirming the accuracy of that fact, some people are certain the election was “stolen.” Some, a small minority, fear the changing American landscape as the nation becomes more racially and culturally diverse. The founding generation of Americans were, they argue, white and mostly British. This minority argues that the country must stay that way today.
The result is a problem so seriously and deeply rooted that at least two realities plague contemporary American politics and society. How can dialogue between two people occur if they cannot agree on basic facts?
Some accept as true those allegations that the government is secretly controlled by pedophilic, Satan-worshipping communists. Others are persuaded that all Democrats, no matter who they are, are socialists somehow willing to sell out the U.S. to China. A lot has to do with gun ownership, and the protection and guarantee to “bear arms” under the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Many gun owners believe that the government aims to seize their firearms, even when a legislator proposes a gun safety law that has nothing to do with seizure.
After the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, federal law enforcement officers found pipe bombs at the buildings housing both the Republican and Democratic National Committees. They discovered a truck loaded with several Mason jars filled with explosives, assault rifles, and lots of ammunition. Some people constructed a makeshift gallows just blocks from the Capitol, Some invaders shouted threats to hang Vice President Mike Pence and shoot House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Just last October, the Department of Homeland Security released its first “annual Homeland Threat Assessment” (bit.ly/DHSthreat).
In his foreword, then-acting Secretary Chad Wolf wrote that he was “particularly concerned about white supremacist violent extremists who have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks in recent years.” The report noted that “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists — specifically white supremacist extremists — will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.” (The accompanying chart from the report includes abbreviations, showing the numbers of extremist attacks in 2018-2019: HVE, homegrown violent extremists; WSE, white supremacist extremists; DVE, domestic violent extremists.)
The report warned that domestic extremists worry especially about the outcomes of political campaigns and elections. They “have heightened their attention to election- or campaign-related activities, candidates’ public statements, and policy issues connected to specific candidates, judging from domestic terrorism plots since 2018 targeting individuals based on their actual or perceived political affiliations.” For them, elections must turn out the way they want, despite the majority vote which may well mean the victory of the person they despise.
These fears were borne out on Jan. 6, and as threats continue across the nation. Notably, no federal domestic terrorism law exists, only those regarding acts of foreign or foreign-inspired terrorism.
Inflammatory words at the White House Ellipse were the spark that lit the conflagration ending in the Capitol assault. Some argue that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech protects those who uttered these words. But the Supreme Court has long held that the amendment does not protect language that incites or produces “imminent lawless action,” and those who utter them may be prosecuted and punished.
But this does not answer the question posed above: how to reconcile ourselves to live together in concert, to discuss issues in a civil manner, and to be open to persuasion when the evidence produced demonstrates a true reality, not a invented one. Perhaps the arc of time over many years will enable Americans to find ways to present a united path toward dialogue and civil understanding.
Jack Fruchtman, a resident of Aquinnah, taught constitutional law and politics for over 40 years.