The parallels between what I saw in Baghdad in 2016 and what happened in Washington, DC Wednesday afternoon are chilling.
I was stationed in Baghdad at the end of April 2016, when Iraqi Shia protestors breached the Green Zone for the first time since it was established after our invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was at the gym when the U.S. Embassy was locked down and everyone was ordered to shelter in nearby buildings. For several hours, no one knew whether the protestors would attempt to storm the embassy. Would this turn into Tehran in 1979?
A short time earlier, Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr held a fiery press conference in the city of Najaf. He gave no orders to his supporters to riot, and in fact he condemned the violence during and after, but on the crowd came, pulling down sections of the concrete walls surrounding the Green Zone and breaking into the Iraqi parliament building. Their grievance was with the Iraqi government and not with us, thankfully, but Iraqi officers with whom I worked repeatedly compared Al Sadr to then candidate Donald Trump. They were downright prophetic.
Listening to President Trump address the crowd in Washington, DC yesterday, then seeing video and photos of protestors breaking into the U.S. Capitol Building and taking selfies in the House chamber brought back strong feelings of déjà vu. In 2016 in Baghdad, panicked lawmakers fled as the crowd rushed in, then Iraqi authorities declared a state of emergency and fired teargas to clear the building. It was nearly beat-for-beat what we witnessed in our own capitol Wednesday afternoon.
It was bad, perhaps among the capitol’s darkest hours, but it had potential to be a lot worse. Lawmakers and pundits on both sides of the political aisle swiftly condemned the actions of the people who broke into the Capitol Building. But both sides of the aisle, including the partisan news media, share blame for the escalating political violence in this country.
I have no patience for political partisans who condemned the storming of the Capitol Building on Wednesday but for months have excused, downplayed, justified, and sometimes even encouraged or participated in “mostly peaceful” protests in cities across the country that have resulted in widespread property destruction, injuries, and even deaths.
Trump’s rhetoric certainly hasn’t calmed things down, but this problem didn’t start with Trump’s election and it won’t end when he leaves office. The brinkmanship, dire predictions and incendiary rhetoric that casts every issue and every election as a life or death prospect, and every opponent as not just wrong but evil, is not confined to one candidate or political party. It needs to stop.
In a free society, a republic in which we settle our differences through discussion, debate, and elections, there is no excuse for resorting to rioting and violence, whether it be over questions of election integrity or social justice. If your side loses an election, if you see injustices in society, if the world is not as you think it should be, your response should be to throw your energies into productive, not destructive, activity.
I make no secret of my political affiliation. I was disappointed in the result of Georgia’s runoff election along with millions of other people. If these protesters in Washington, DC had devoted half as much energy to helping Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in Georgia, they probably would have won. How many of them made phone calls, donated money, knocked on doors, or drove people to the polls? I’m guessing very few, if any.
It’s much easier to stand around yelling and holding signs, lighting fires or storming buildings than to do the hard work of campaigning and winning elections. Our elections are run by volunteers–members of the community who give up their time to make sure things run smoothly. If you are concerned about preventing election fraud, you can volunteer to serve as an election judge, or act as a poll watcher. There are dozens of other ways to get involved in the political process to help your preferred candidates succeed.
What purpose did the events of Wednesday afternoon serve? What result did the protesters hope to achieve? Though counting of the electoral votes was temporarily halted, lawmakers reconvened and stayed up until 3am to complete the count. Joe Biden will still be inaugurated on January 20th. Nothing happened except pointless destruction, injury, and four deaths (including one woman shot and killed by police). As a result, the protesters’ cause has been tarnished and their actions condemned. Thousands of otherwise innocent people who just showed up to peacefully protest have been lumped in with the rioters.
Iraq is a failed state where elections are routinely marred by violence and sectarian militias rule the streets and act with impunity. Political corruption, kidnappings, murders, and bombings are common. The parallels between what I saw in Baghdad in 2016 and what happened in Washington, DC Wednesday afternoon are chilling.
We need to decide what kind of country we want to live in. Do we want to live in a country where daily activities, commerce, and government are routinely disrupted by violence? Where suspicion and distrust rules the day? Or do we want to live in a country with an engaged and informed citizenry actively involved in the political process, settling our differences with argument, discussion and debate? Where questions are settled in the voting booth rather than on the streets?
I hope we make the right choice.