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Monday, August 02, 2021

The event at the Capitol should make America ask itself: Why was it taken by surprise, yet again?

Had this incident occurred anywhere else in the world, it would have been called an attempted coup d’etat and most nations including the United States and its President, would have condemned it.


January 7, 2021 8:51:00 pm
Trump supporters left a flag outside the Capitol, Wednesday evening, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP)

Written by Sudipta Sarangi

January 6, 2021: That seat from where the government of the people, for the people, by the people operated, was in the midst of certifying the victory of President-elect Joe Biden to fulfil its duty of carrying out the will of the people. Almost out of the blue, just like the tragedy that happened on September 11, 2001, America watched aghast as The Capitol was invaded (one of the terms used on national TV) by supporters of President Donald Trump, spurred on by his exhortations that the Presidential election had been stolen from American people. Law enforcement was overwhelmed, Vice President Mike Pence, Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi were whisked away to safe locations. Members of the Electoral College were taken into safekeeping and the members of the media were put under lockdown. The images one saw later on TV resembled a siege, and towards late evening Vice President Pence came on television to announce that The Capitol had been secured and the Electoral College would get back to its work.

Had this incident occurred anywhere else in the world, it would have been called an attempted coup d’etat and most nations including the United States and its President, would have condemned it. The UN would have spoken against it and organisations like the Amnesty International would have cried foul. I recall the great late-night show comedian Jay Leno making fun by showing scenes of what happens in the Indian parliament – I am sure today if he still had his own show, he would be showing pictures of what happened in Capitol Hill instead. And the charge on the assailants is that of “criminal trespassing” – imagine if the crowd had been predominantly Black or if you want to put it in an Indian perspective, predominantly Muslim!

Writing in 1957, Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon introduced the notion of procedural rationality which says that when faced with complex decision problems, often we may choose to follow a procedure that is simply internally consistent and not necessarily one that gives the best answer. I am a strong believer in the fact that human beings act rationally most of the time, and I feel that people who participated in this event must be at least procedurally rational. Many of them came from far off places using their own money and giving their time to what they thought was a patriotic act. Sadly, one person even lost her life. These people were fully aware that they were acting in the times of a deadly pandemic and they would also face resistance from law enforcement. Yet, their conviction based on a mountain of lies (since there is no concrete evidence of election fraud yet) was so strong that they were willing to take all these steps.

I shudder to think what lies ahead for the Biden Presidency. Persuading this group about the legitimacy of the Presidency, the importance of wearing masks, of taking the vaccine, the harm to our planet from climate change is going to be a truly Sisyphean task.

This event has driven home points some of which echo the past. First, how was America taken by surprise once again? What were the intelligence services doing? How was an attack of such a scale not anticipated because the National Guard was only called in when it became obvious that the Washington DC Metropolitan police would not be able to contain this crowd. Many Republicans suddenly changed their tune – did they not know they Hydra they were unleashing on American democracy? Did they not realise that supporting a leader who cared more for his own interests than the party and country could have disastrous consequences in the long-run and possibly in the short run? Yes, I am wondering what Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Kelly Loeffler and their ilk were doing till now? While I am sure that these individuals were stunned by this attack on the citadel of democracy, somewhere deep down they also realised that their stand will affect their political future. After all, French fries had been renamed as Freedom fries in America. I am sure that being under threat from the angry mobs also created a moment of panic in the representatives of the people and their families, which helped restore rationality. And so, the volte-face.

A little over 230 years ago, on July 14, 1789, an angry mob attacked the Bastille, a fortress in Paris which served as a prison. At that time there were only seven prisoners in the Bastille, but the storming of the Bastille marked the end of the ancien regime. Even today, it is associated with liberty and equality and celebrated as a holiday in France. The events that unfolded in the United States were in sharp contrast – the storming of the Capitol was an assault on freedom and democracy. Luckily it failed, but the President wants his supporters to remember this day. History I fear will remember this day but for entirely different reasons – it marks the end of an era. American democracy will now have to forever be on the lookout for attacks not just from outside but from within.

Sarangi is Professor of Economics at Virginia Tech. His book, ‘The Economics of Small Things’, was recently published by Penguin

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