We were devastated and angered by images of a mob’s violent invasion and desecration of the Capitol, interruption of an essential democratic function, and accompanying deaths and injuries.
Our horror has only intensified as the days have passed as we have absorbed increasingly alarming ramifications. We have each visited the Capitol – the People’s House – and been struck by the inspiring beauty of the building that serves both as a symbol of the nation’s democratic aspirations and the heart of its democratic process.
The purpose of this letter is, first, to sketch out our thoughts on the causes leading up to the attack and, second, to address the actions that must be taken to restore our community, reduce disunity and preserve our democracy.
Our nation has arrived at its present, ongoing, dangerous situation through a combination of (1) the active spread of false information, aided in great part by social media; (2) increasing polarization with aggressive promotion of hatred, blame and violence; and (3) the erosion of trust in democratic institutions and the rule of law.
We are facing one of the most complex, challenging and frightening times our republic has ever known, and how we deal with it will determine the future of our country. There are no quick fixes.
First, we must commit to truth as a core value. To do this, we must regulate social media to preclude it from transmitting certain kinds of messages, including incitements to violence and false statements of fact.
Second, we must have the courage to speak up for truth and democracy. As Elie Wiesel, who lost his family in a Nazi concentration camp, stated, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Those who stay silent when it is important to speak up enable wrongdoers.
It has become increasingly clear that our communication strategies are deficient in that we tend to attack and blame, rather than strive to work together to promote the common good. How best to speak up then? When one speaks to another contemptuously, and dismisses their opinions and values out of hand, the listener naturally becomes less receptive and less able to communicate or collaborate constructively. We need respect, not ridicule; dialogue, not pontification; and collaboration, not domination. We need to learn to speak with open hearts in order to build understanding and wisdom. This does not mean we should not express righteous anger at the desecration of democratic institutions and processes. On the contrary, we should strive to understand and address the forces leading to such desecration, and work to bend those forces toward truth and justice.
Third, we must strive to be good citizens. President Kennedy pointed the way: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Citizenship can be measured by one’s contribution to the common good.
Good citizenship also calls for us to avoid demonizing those who disagree with us. When we demonize others, we dehumanize them, and that gives us permission to mistreat them. In addition, good citizenship requires us to demand to see the evidence behind assertions of fact made by the media, political leaders and others.
As a nation of 330 million people, it is inevitable we will disagree on many issues. Threats and bullying are inherently anti-democratic because they impede the expression of the free will of the people. Therefore, we must listen to each other and seek common ground, however rough the terrain.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we should not take swift and strong action to enforce the rule of law when the laws have been violated, as they were on Jan. 6. On the contrary, our democratic values and institutions must be protected, physically when necessary, in order to preserve and protect the basic rights set forth in our Declaration of Independence, namely equality of all people before the law, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Allen Ferguson and Victoria Amada live in Santa Fe and El Prado.