I have so many thoughts on the latest developments in America. It’s been overwhelming, even from here, and I am trying to compile my thoughts. I’ll start on the micro responses, then pan out to macro.
I’m no Forrest Gump. I’ve never even seen the movie, only its highlights. But anytime calamity strikes, I can’t help but think, I was there, I know that place. OKC bombing, check. 9/11, check, all locations. Madrid’s Atocha station, check. There might be more, but those are the ones that stand out. Add now to this list, U.S. Capitol, check.
I know those stairs and halls well. I interned in the U.S. Senate in the summer of 1994, a year after everyone cool did it. I was on a fellowship and stayed for all twelve weeks – interning is so popular that offices offer it in two shifts of six weeks each. I stayed with my aunt in Arlington, rode the bus to the Pentagon where I boarded the Metro to Union Station and walked out to the Russell Building. The east entrance, the west entrance, the north wall. I can close my eyes and walk it.
The interns were a pretty homogeneous group. Almost all white, university undergraduates, children of privilege, whose families were politically well-connected or major donors. I was the one scholarship student. The glimpse into this level of privilege was eye-opening for me. The things they expected. The days they passed, the worries and frustrations they expressed. We spent the day in a capacious conference room reading Roll Call, running out as needed for errands or to give a Capitol tour to a constituent family. I really loved giving tours of the Capitol. Here the Rotunda, there the crypt, this the original stairwell, here is where the Supreme Court originally heard cases. Once or twice I gave it in Spanish – a highwater linguistic mark for me. The luckier interns got picked up into the “press pod” or scheduling. To ensure everyone stayed busy, we all had to work on a research paper using the Library of Congress and the Congressional Research Service. (This must have changed so much with the internet.) I wrote mine on mineral rights. It was a boring paper. I turned it in at the end of my twelve weeks.
There were other scheduled activities to keep us busy. Bless those senate staffers who tolerated us with as much good cheer as they could while trying to get their jobs done. Many of them were witty. They were also barely older than we were and often hungover. We played intern baseball against other teams from the House and Senate. I soon deciphered the rabbit warren of the Capitol complex and became an expert tour-giver and errand-runner. (This, too, must have changed so much with the internet.) The basement corridors, the hanging wires since the buildings are all code-exempt. The security checks to enter the Russell Building. A month or so into my time there, I was astonished by how normal the staff seemed. No debate champs. No Merit Scholars. Two young women seemed to do about 95% of the actual work. Routinely running into senators in the hallways and being surprised at how old most of them seemed. I remember heels clicking on marble floors. I remember wearing clothes that didn’t feel like they belonged to me.
Watching midweek events unfolding in the Capitol, wrinkled in my memory in the quarter century between then and now, I could smell those hallways, see those marble washrooms again. Knowing how hard it was to enter as a badge-toting college intern, I could imagine what pressure and force and numbers it must have taken for the the rabble to overwhelm the Capitol Police. What a shock it was to see the defamation of those spaces where, for heaven’s sake, I was not even allowed to wear pants in (skirts required) in 1994. The feet up on the desk. The blood and feces on the marble statues. The pieces of wood paneling with letters NCY PEL SI tossed around by Americans in hoodies. I could hardly believe my eyes, and yet, felt almost no surprise. I couldn’t sleep Wednesday night, checking my phone again, and again, for news. At one point my NYT app had 72 updates. I couldn’t keep up. Who can keep up with this?
The news from America about the global response to these events seems to insist that everyone is surprised. The people in Italy are not surprised. They are disappointed and sad. Everyone saw it coming. Violent rhetoric begets violence. We’ve had years of violent rhetoric, and now reap a harvest of hate.
I remember my earnest civics teachers and American History teachers in school, how carefully they taught us about the three branches, the reasons why, the federalist papers. Checks and balances. It’s clear from here that the checks and balances on the executive branch since 2016 have been insufficient. The legislative branch is complicit. The founders knew this. The U.S. was born as a repudiation of governmental tyranny. I wonder what Mrs. Bocock, Mr. Boyd and Mrs. Berryhill would say. That no one thought it would come to this. That this is not how things should happen. That this should not have been allowed to happen.
Blood on hands and in the halls. I don’t like it one bit. It’s indefensible. Large segments of my extended family believe that it is.
I do know what one lucid writer says:
The making of the treaty is the treaty. It doesn’t matter what the terms are, just that there are terms. It’s the goodwill that matters. When that runs out, the treaty is broken, whatever the terms say. – Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
This probably doesn’t make a ton of sense. I’ll try again tomorrow. In the meantime, I feel extremely concerned about public safety, in the the District and in the Capitol, in the weeks to come. This is not a drill.