Editorial: Congressmen must call out cause of violence

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 7, 2021

Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 will forever be a stain on American democracy.

During a joint session of Congress that’s almost always a routine step in the country’s peaceful transition of power, Wednesday was everything but. Instead of members of Congress debating the presence of election problems or, as is the case, lack thereof, politicians gripping gas masks were evacuated from their chambers shortly after objections were raised about Arizona’s electoral votes.

Images from the U.S. Capitol showed a portion of a Trump-supporting crowd gathered to protest 2020 presidential election results breaking windows, entering the U.S. Capitol, rummaging through offices and entering the chambers of the U.S. House and Senate. The Associated Press reported Wednesday night that one woman was shot and killed.

Republican lawmakers who protested election results likely envisioned fierce (but democratic) dissent would follow their statements that fraud stole the election from President Donald Trump. Instead, the halls of Congress were the scene of a riot.

It was the lowest point in a deepening rift between people in America with different political views — pushed further apart by widespread conspiracy theories about a legitimate election for the nation’s top office.

Words are more than ink on a page or text on a screen. They can inspire those listening or, for better or worse, serve as a call to action. So, when the president and other elected leaders tell people to take back the country, that the election was stolen and to march on the Capitol there should be no surprise when some of their supporters act.

The trouble is there’s been no widespread evidence of voter fraud that would change the outcome of election results. Judges across the country, including Trump appointees, have tossed out lawsuits about election fraud.

The burden of leadership is being able to tell the truth and speak truth to power when it’s difficult. It means taking angry criticism from people with whom you might have previously agreed. It means examining your own language to see how it affects the actions of your supporters and doing more than condemning mob rule.

Politicians quickly and often point fingers at perpetrators of riots and out-of-hand protests when they disagree with their political views, calling for prosecution. The same is not true when political views align.

The words of the president matter. So, too, do the words of our congressmen.

Rep. Ted Budd, Rowan County’s congressman, moved in the right direction Wednesday, but he only condemned the effect rather than the cause. There was no call for prosecution of those who participated in the riot.

“Mob rule is not representative of our country. That is not how we do things,” Budd said.

Immediately after House members were evacuated, Rep. Richard Hudson, who represented parts of Rowan County until this week, did the same. He only condemned the violence rather than why the violence occurred.

A good example is Republican Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina’s senior senator, who said America’s core principles “were threatened by those seeking to forcibly stop our electoral process and overturn the results of a presidential election with which they disagreed.”

“No evidence of voter fraud has emerged that would warrant overturning the 2020 election,” Burr said. “The president bears responsibility for today’s events by promoting the unfounded conspiracy theories that have led to this point. It is past time to accept the will of American voters and to allow our nation to move forward. “

To be clear, there must be room for debate about election reforms that make the country’s elections more secure, but having a debate about the need to implement voter ID, move up ballot deadlines or implement signature verification laws is light years from fictional rhetoric that results in vandals and rioters storming the Capitol. The former are matters on which reasonable people should be able to disagree, sometimes vehemently, without thinking the other side is evil. The latter has no place in America. Sometimes the line is thin between the two.

In another time, an incident like Wednesday’s would be a moment of unity — when the country and its politicians stand in support of American democracy through their words and actions.

The reality is that years of political polarization, which has roots predating Trump, mean there are few reasons to be optimistic this will become a national turning point.