The Awe and Anguish of Being an American Today
The lofty language and political togetherness of Joe Biden’s Inauguration made for a day to believe, again, in America and the idea of sharing power, even among people who disagree about almost everything. Listening to the enchanting young poet Amanda Gorman, I got a little weepy as she told us, “While democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith, we trust.” Lady Gaga’s powerful rendition of our anthem—pounding home the line “Our flag was still there”—was as relevant to the treasonous challenge to Congress this month as it was when British warships bombarded Fort McHenry, in 1814. On the very site of an insurrection that, two weeks earlier, threatened our union and resulted in five deaths, Joe Biden, our new President, promised that “democracy has prevailed.” His optimistic energy was infectious.
And then there was a night filled with rousing and timely songs—John Legend belting out “It’s a New Day” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and Jon Bon Jovi offering “Here Comes the Sun.” Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard were aspirational and inspirational. “It’s time to come together. You and I can make change,” they sang. And Katy Perry ended the joyous day with “Firework” against a backdrop of real fireworks.
The problem, after any Inauguration, is all those other days. We need to be honest with ourselves about the health of our democracy. America has made gradual progress, no doubt. We are evolving, albeit with millions still denying the election results. On Wednesday, a woman born to Black and South Asian parents took the oath of office for the Vice-Presidency from a Latina Supreme Court Justice, another woman. “We dream. We shoot for the moon,” Kamala Harris said on Wednesday night. “We are undaunted in our belief that we will overcome.” Others will surely feel the same way. Biden has appointed the most diverse staff in history—men and a record number of women; Blacks, whites, and a Native American; a gay man and a transgender woman—who finally represent the splendid diversity of our land.
Yet we are still vulnerable to the selfish and voracious demands by many for more rights than others who are legally their equals. And to the belief in an alternative truth untethered to reality. In a poll by Vox and Data for Progress, more than seventy per cent of Republicans said that they didn’t fully trust the election results, even after congressional ratification (and after the storming of the Capitol). Almost half said that Biden should not be sworn in as President. Even more ominous is the fact that, during this sacred transition, some twenty-five thousand troops were deployed in my beloved Washington, D.C., in concentric circles, in an area of only five square miles—four times as many personnel as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria combined. On Inauguration Day, there was still spray paint on the Capitol’s marble columns—“A chilling reminder of what happened there just two weeks ago,” Senator Amy Klobuchar told NPR. Amid the calls to mend fences, the most striking images of the day were new fences, topped with prickly barbed wire, which prevented the public from participating in the celebration of their votes. In a mass text, Mayor Muriel Bowser instructed me and everyone else who lives in Washington to stay home on Inauguration Day.
Until this month, new fortifications around the capital were a response to foreign threats. Woodrow Wilson closed off the White House grounds in 1917, during the First World War. New gatehouses went up around the White House after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in 1941, which triggered America’s entry into the Second World War. New barricades were erected around the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department after the suicide bombings that killed more than two hundred and forty U.S. Marine peacekeepers in Beirut, in 1983. After the 9/11 attacks, in 2001, Jersey barriers were deployed around the entrances to the White House, and Pennsylvania Avenue was closed to pedestrians.
Two years ago, I was in Syria, on the front line of the U.S.-backed campaign against ISIS, at a time when jihadi extremism was deemed to be the greatest threat to Americans. Today, we’re most afraid of ourselves. During the Inaugural invocation, by Father Leo O’Donovan, the cameras panned to a row of National Guard members, their bodies bulked up by their bulletproof Kevlar vests—protecting the troops from other Americans. Tens of thousands of National Guard members may remain deployed in Washington, possibly for weeks to come. This is the most powerful city in the world’s most powerful democracy. But for all the strength displayed at the Inauguration—with Democrats and Republicans fist-bumping as they greeted one another in the Capitol stands—Washington is still a nervous place, especially with the Senate trial of former President Donald Trump due to play out soon in the equally split Senate. That will drive home our divisions. The near future may not be shaped by the winners of our election but by the losers.
On Inauguration night, I spoke with Khizr Khan, a Harvard-educated lawyer whose son Humayun died in Iraq, in 2004, as he tried to stop a suicide bomber from driving a car onto a U.S. base. Khan became famous after his six-minute address to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, in Philadelphia, where he waved his pocket-sized Constitution in the air and questioned whether Trump had ever read it. “I will lend you my copy,” Khan said. “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.” His speech made the Constitution a best-seller on Amazon. Trump responded by belittling Khan and his wife on a Sunday talk show. Over the next four years, Trump also exacerbated America’s divisions on race, religion, and ethnicity, even after the horrifying killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. On his last full day in office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (a potential future Presidential candidate) tweeted that “Woke-ism, multiculturalism, all the -isms — they’re not who America is.”
Of the recent political turmoil, Khan reflected, “Humayun would have been very sad, as we were, watching what has been taking place over the last couple of months with the election back-and-forth.” Khan, an immigrant from Pakistan, brought his family to America, in 1980, to escape repressive rule. Humayun, who had a fascination with Thomas Jefferson from childhood, joined the R.O.T.C. at the University of Virginia, a school founded by Jefferson. He had planned to leave the Army to attend law school, but, after the 9/11 attacks, he decided to continue serving his country. After their son’s death, at the age of twenty-seven, Khizr and his wife, Ghazala, became a Gold Star family. “Humayun lived a life believing in the principle of democracy—and here it was under attack. He would have said, ‘Is that what we stood for?’ ” Khan said. “We came really close to losing our democracy.”
I also spoke with Ali Soufan, a former F.B.I. agent who has investigated some of the biggest terrorist attacks against the United States. He came to the United States from Lebanon, in 1988, during his homeland’s civil war. “What is really frustrating is that there is a significant proportion of the population that is trying to take our nation to the abyss,” he told me. “As a democracy, we can’t even agree on a mutual understanding of truth.” In 2019, Soufan testified before Congress about the dangers of white-supremacist groups, which he feared were being ignored. When we spoke this week, he called America’s supremacists a “white jihad.” America, he said, “is at a crossroads. I’ve seen this kind of powerful divisive element before, in Lebanon. That’s why I ended up here in the first place.”
Our political divisions have been reflected in the life-or-death debate over whether to wear a mask to help ward off the coronavirus. Biden’s Inauguration began, on Tuesday evening, with an expression of grief at the Lincoln Memorial, where he and Harris stopped to mourn the still-soaring death toll from the pandemic. In honor of those lost, lights flickered along the reflecting pool and at landmarks across the nation. On Inauguration Day, the National Mall was filled with nearly two hundred thousand flags, instead of people, due to the risk of spreading COVID-19. Biden’s subsequent stop at Arlington National Cemetery, accompanied by former Presidents Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton, to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, was an eerie reminder of our existential health crisis. The cemetery is home to four hundred thousand graves, some of which date back to the Civil War. (William Christman, a private from Pennsylvania, Biden’s home state, was the first to be laid to rest, in 1864—a hundred and fifty-seven years ago.) The same number of Americans have now died from COVID-19, over the past eleven months—and the worst, Biden has warned, may be yet to come.