The Conceit that It Cannot Happen Here
America Is Not Exempt from Consequences
After 9/11 and January 6, it is odd that Americans so often think of our country as inviolate.
Granted, there are significant differences in scale between those incidents and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As shocking and grievous as the death and destruction were on 9/11, and as much as we mourned the nearly 3,000 dead, the targeted terrorist attacks of that day pale beside Russia’s weeks of indiscriminate shelling, the relentless effort to level entire cities. Ukraine faces an existential threat we did not.
Our psychological wounds might have been deeper had the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty been hit on 9/11, and had the plane downed in Pennsylvania continued to Washington. When I arrived at the Department of Labor after the attacks, I walked down to Constitution Avenue and looked eastward. I was relieved to see the Capitol dome gleaming in the sunlight.
I thought of that last week when lunching with an old friend in Washington outside a sandwich shop a few miles north of my home in Dupont Circle. Next door was Comet Ping Pong, the restaurant targeted in Pizzagate, where a man fired a weapon in December 2016 in response to a conspiracy theory that claimed Hillary Clinton and John Podesta ran a child sex ring in its nonexistent basement. What lunacy must occur before we stop telling ourselves that it cannot happen here?
Some Americans habitually favor the most aggressive military option without regard for consequences or exit strategies. They talk as if we have done nothing for Ukraine against the war criminal Putin unless we declare a no-fly zone, which would entail shooting down Russian planes. The Western alliance led by President Biden, while stopping short of setting off World War Three, has given Ukraine extensive aid, including anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, and imposed devastating sanctions against Russia.
The alliance has found new courage. On March 15, the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovenia traveled by train to Kyiv to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky. They announced it in advance.
Many Americans on the far right are fans of Putin because they share his homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and authoritarianism. Their Rambo Jesus bears no resemblance to the Christ of the Gospels. It is as if their model is Martin Sheen’s deranged president in The Dead Zone, who starts a nuclear war and announces, “The missiles are flying. Hallelujah, Hallelujah!”
Putin’s disinformation combines the Big Lie with chaos and confusion. Media critic Eric Boehlert calls this “the fog of unknowability,” and says it now defines Trump’s GOP. As Masha Gessen of the New Yorker says of Putin, “[H] ow) can you separate what he actually believes from what he invented and then eventually came to believe because it’s in his feedback loop?”
With the fog pumped out by Fox News, 40 percent of Americans do not believe Biden won the 2020 election. Trump used the lie to incite an insurrection at the Capitol intended to overthrow the government. It can’t happen here? To quote an old commercial, you’re soaking in it.
If America were pounded as Ukraine has been in recent weeks, would we rally like the Ukrainians? What if the destruction were by Americans? Historically we have preferred comforting myths, like the line in “America the Beautiful” where aspiration trumps observation, “Thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears.”
Last week, along with the images of devastation, I watched a group outside the opera house in Odessa performing the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from Verdi’s opera Nabucco. “O, mia patria, sì bella e perduta!” they sang, while the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag waved in the breeze. “Oh, my homeland, so lovely and so lost!”
Amid smoking ruins, would Americans hew to the Enlightenment vision that we have struggled for 246 years to make real? Or would we succumb to the tribalists and know-nothings? We may not have long to choose.
The New York Times reports that many investment, law, and lobbying firms in America and Europe have helped Russian oligarchs launder billions, including using offshore shell companies. Some of them have cut ties with these clients in response to sanctions; some have not. That many among us have divided loyalties should not shock us given how many on the right echo Putin’s talking points. But the prospect of an autocracy-infatuated party retaking Congress should chill us to the bone. Failing to defeat them could sink our republic.▼
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist at email@example.com.