No Unity or Accountability: Two Months After the Capitol Riots

Maggie Connolly ’21

Chief Opinions’ Editor

It has been almost two months after the mob, riot, insurrection, whatever word you decide to choose in your reflection of the event. In thinking about Trump’s legacy and his impeachment and swift acquittal, discussion of the events of January 6th have still run rampant, as they should be.

One of the largest conversations going into the Biden administration and surrounding his inauguration was the idea of unity. But, as many agree, we cannot have unity in this country without accountability. That was part of the reason Democrats wanted to hold Donald Trump accountable through the impeachment process.

But who else needs to be held accountable? Is it Josh Hawley, the Senator from Missouri who raised his fists in solidarity with the rioters? Is it Mitch McConnell, the former Senate Majority Leader, for condoning Trump’s actions throughout his presidency?

I saw a Tweet a few weeks ago examining the accountability question from a journalist I have always really respected. He posted a thread explaining why Trump should be first and foremost held accountable for leading his followers to threaten the lives of those in and around the Capitol building that day. I was shocked by the narrative he spun about the rioters, and how his tone almost victimized them as symptoms of a larger problem. This view is not a singular one: many Democrats have spoken about accountability only as it relates to Donald Trump and his politically elite cohort, as opposed to the followers that perpetuate this culture of violence and bigotry on the ground. There is no unity without accountability for all. Many wonder what that might look like.

In post-apartheid South Africa, the new democracy held a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in order to allow those who had been victim to human rights violations to speak out against their perpetrators and explain the truths of the horrors of apartheid. The Commission has since been both critiqued and congratulated, but the attempt and awareness of the government’s wrongdoings was at the least, acknowledged. There was an attempt by the nation to understand the lived experiences of those who were, and continue to be, some of the most marginalized in the country.

Accountability exists, and it goes beyond impeachment. In learning about the South African TRC and the apartheid-era policies, I could not help but recognize the similarities between South Africa and the United States in both the depths of Jim Crow-era policy and in the weeds of the modern Jim Crow policies.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the likes of the newly born democracy in South Africa might not be what accountability looks like in the US under a new administration. Regardless, it is an example of a nation that was able to use a concrete method to begin to heal the wounds of the past. The accountability we need in this country is not just directed at those in power, like Trump or McConnell, but also those who were present amidst the violence that day.

We cannot, as a country, consider those who were present at and active players in the insurrection as innocent followers of Donald Trump and other far-right elites. These are adults who have lived in this country and been a part of this democracy for years. These were people who chose to log onto Parlor or Facebook and plan to storm the Capitol that January afternoon. 

They made the active decision to follow the dangerous words of Donald Trump, and they were undoubtedly encouraged by his rhetoric over the last four years, but he is not the only individual who must be held responsible. Impeachment was a step, conviction would have been a victory, but neither would have been enough. 

President Biden and Vice President Harris have an overwhelming agenda, much of which was made more overwhelming by the state of the nation they inherited from their predecessors, but neither of them should lose sight of what unity really means. It means something different for many individuals, sure, but pay attention to those who have been most affected by the regime of the previous four years. What does a call for unity and accountability look like from their perspective? What do those things look like for the representatives and staff whose lives were put at risk by Trump’s supporters? We cannot begin to heal and unify as a country, as many on the right and left are calling to do, without a close examination of what this place we live in has become.

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