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After '1/6' the myth of US democracy lies in tatters

Capitol riots should disabuse Americans of the fatal illusion that they are immune from their own violent manhandling of the world around them
Amid heightened security, a member of the Virginia National Guard carries a weapon outside the US Capitol in Washington on 14 January 2021 (AFP)

In the US and around the globe, since the four coordinated terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the iconic figure 9/11 has become emblematic of violent fanaticism.  

Then, after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas in August 2005, race and class were exposed as underlying factors in how the US government responds to natural calamities. 9/11 was the sign of the enemy without; Katrina was the sign of race and class warfare within. 

Americans must be fully conscious of the fact that what they are now doing to themselves, they have done to others too

September 11 had falsely unified Americans against an amorphous enemy. Katrina had exposed their factual divisions along racial and class fault-lines.  

The same happened during the Covid-19 pandemic, during which hundreds of thousands of Americans have perished, mostly because of the criminal incompetence of the Trump administration. Americans began to compare the country’s bravura response to 3,000 deaths in the 9/11 attacks to the numbing indifference towards hundreds of thousands of people dying, most of them from poor, racial and ethnic minority communities.  

For the past two decades, 9/11 has been a signal for anger and vengeance, laying waste to two countries - Afghanistan and Iraq - with a vague sense of punishment and retribution. Millions of innocent Afghans and Iraqis are still paying for 9/11.  

Today, the events of “1/6”, meaning the storming of the US Capitol by a militant mob of terrorists violating the heart of the American claim to democracy on 6 January 2021, marks a decisive break from the fetishisation of 9/11. Americans and the world at large must now come to terms with the fact that the greatest threat to Americans are Americans. 

For decades, Muslims have been the designated evil, having been added to Native Americans, African Americans and Latinx as the bete noire of the self-designated “white people’s” fearful fantasies. Now, these white people have to run away from themselves.  

Rallying cry of a racist psychopath

If a gang of 19 Arabs perpetrated the atrocities of 9/11 and brought the term “Islamic terrorism” into the mainstream, thousands of blue-blooded white Americans stormed the Capitol after the rallying cry of a racist psychopath who commands the electoral allegiance of some 70 million more. Where will the US military bomb now? 

Covid-19 and 1/6 have exposed Americans to enemies they cannot bomb “back to the Stone Age”, as they love to say. There are now more American National Guards in Washington than US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.  

Trump supporters march to the Capitol in Washington on 6 January 2021 (AFP)
Trump supporters march to the Capitol in Washington on 6 January 2021 (AFP)

What hampers this urgent need to come to terms with the events of 1/6 is a pitiful state of denial. American politicians and pundits keep repeating to themselves the soothing lullaby that this coup attempt is not American, seeking desperately to sustain an image of stability and innocence for themselves. “The scenes of chaos in the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are,” President-elect Joe Biden said. 

For the sake of themselves, and for the sake of the humanity at the mercy of their empire, Americans must be disabused of this illusion.  

“Due to travel restrictions, this year the United States had to organise the coup at home.” I have no idea who first said this precious satirical phrase. It appeared on my newsfeed, putting a bold and beautiful satirical twist on a sad and frightening end to the illusion of American exceptionalism.  

Domestic focus

Meanwhile, there are more sober minds. “Wake Up, America. This Is Who We Are,” pleaded Joshua Zeitz in Politico. “For most of US history, a white minority has refused to share power with people of color - democracy be damned.”  

Others, such as Brent Staples of the New York Times, wrote persuasively about “The Myth of American Innocence”, reminding readers that “the Capitol attack shows the danger of forgetting America’s history”.  

US Capitol riots: The biggest threat to America is at home
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The problem with many of these corrective lenses, however, is twofold: they are old, and they are domestic. They always go back to the 19th century, when white supremacy was actively mobilised to dismantle the foundations of democracy for non-whites. In 1857, this happened in Missouri; after the 1860 election, seven southern states left the Union rather than accept the results; in 1867 in Maryland, 1871 in Mississippi, 1873 in Delaware, this, that, or another violent thing happened - all of them true, all of them old, all of them domestic.    

That will not do. Americans must be fully conscious of the fact that what they are now doing to themselves, they have done to others too.  

In his bestselling book Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (2007), Stephen Kinzer details, chapter and verse, the history of the coups, revolutions and invasions by which the US has toppled foreign governments it has seen as detrimental to its imperial and colonial interests.  

Coming to terms with atrocities

The chickens, as the glorious Malcolm X said decades ago, have come home to roost. This is not schadenfreude, as bitter and vindictive columnists are now fond of saying. This is an extension of the same violent logic of domination and violence that Americans have perpetrated on others coming back to bite them on their own backside. The sickness of militant racism is now devouring itself.    

The point here is not just hypocrisy. The point is the epistemic limitation of looking at the US only domestically. The US is a dysfunctional globalised empire; its domestic and foreign deeds are integral to each other.  

Stop these atrocities abroad, so you can start cleaning your own house of the racist militants you saw crawling over your sacrosanct sites

Unless and until the US stops its systematic and brutal intervention in other countries, it can never come to terms with its own domestic atrocities. Americans cannot endorse the Israeli theft of Palestine and bankroll its brutalisation of Palestinians, while continuing to claim that they are a hallmark of hope for the world at large. The Saudis and the Emiratis are starving children and their parents in Yemen through the military hardware that the US sells them to enrich arms manufacturing companies. Egyptians are under a murderous junta, thanks to US military support.  

Stop these atrocities abroad, so you can start cleaning your own house of the racist militants you saw crawling over your sacrosanct sites - and do so with moral clarity and logical consistency. You cannot be a cause of misery around the globe, and then ride the high horse of indignation when President Donald Trump and his violent goons enact their dictatorial dreams.  

At their mercy

After 1/6, Americans should move beyond 9/11 and be disabused of their fatal illusions that they are immune from their own violent manhandling of the world around them. After 1/6, the world, too, must come to terms with the fact that we are all on our own. 

There is no model for democracy. From “the mother of parliaments”, as the British congratulate themselves, to the children of Thomas Jefferson in the US, whatever imperial heritage the West views as democracy is the very condition of denying democracy to any other nation they have brutalised as a colony.  

After 9/11 came a deluge. After 1/6, the world must welcome the best of Americans into the bosom of their own fragilities. We all remain at the mercy of their worst, and the worst in our own midst. There is a Mohammed bin Salman in every Donald Trump. There is a Donald Trump in every Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Impeaching Trump means very little, as long as his successor continues to do to others what Trump did to Americans.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Hamid Dabashi
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York. His latest books include Reversing the Colonial Gaze: Persian Travelers Abroad (Cambridge University Press, 2020), and The Emperor is Naked: On the Inevitable Demise of the Nation-State (Zed, 2020). His forthcoming book, On Edward Said: Remembrance of Things Past, is scheduled to be released by Haymarket Books later this year.