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Terrorism works. It works not because it is devastating by itself — no single bombing, or burning, or storming of a government building by a flag-waving crowd is enough to destroy a society of millions of people. It works because of the way that we respond to it. Like a vaccine, it is a small provocation that provokes an enormous backlash. The response, which we inflict on ourselves, is the real damage. The shoe bomber didn’t manage to blow up a single plane, but 20 years later, we are all still taking off our shoes at the airport.
A presidential inauguration is a chance for America to show ourselves and the world what the American spirit is all about. And so we have filled our nation’s capital with heavily armed soldiers. On the eve of what should be one of the biggest celebrations in at least four years, Washington, DC is full of National Guard troops, Secret Service agents, police from across the country, and almost no one else. The pandemic would have made this a small inauguration no matter what, but this is something else. This a full, panic-induced lockdown, bristling with Humvees and M‑16s, grafted onto what will be a forced display of Hope and Unity, a Joker-like combination of an immovable smile set atop a structure that is meant to kill.
To walk through downtown DC on the eve of inauguration day is to constantly feel that you may be hauled off to Guantanamo if you take a wrong turn. In place of the normal welcoming pageantry of dumbed-down Americana is a maze of metal crowd control barriers, tall mesh metal fences, and thick concrete slabs arranged in tooth-like formations to deter dangers such as car bombs — or attendance at the inauguration. Blocks of K Street are lined with mean-looking fencing, behind which lurk dozens of troops and cops of all stripes, a Kevlar-vested crowd with no apparent purpose but to keep a close eye on the almost deserted streets. There are no signs directing you how to, perhaps, get within visual distance of America’s most well-known monuments; you must spot an open gate somewhere and tiptoe through slowly, hoping that you are not taking an errant path that will draw the attention of the snipers. What is usually a red white and blue version of Disneyland is now a military encampment as hostile to the general public as a state prison waiting room.
It is possible, with much trial and error, to navigate almost as far as Lafayette Square, and no further. The fence in front of the square, made into a sort of mass art project over the course of the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, is now the province solely of soldiers, who stream by on their way to reinforce other tourist attractions. On the corner of 17th and H Street, a drone hovers motionlessly at the end of a long tether atop a high building, spying on everything with an unblinking eye. As the sky began to darken in the late afternoon on Tuesday, hundreds of soldiers marched by, loaded with vests and helmets and gear like a bunch of European backpackers who were trained to kill. A group of guardsmen emerged from behind the metal fence and started making a huge stack of clear plastic riot shields, riot helmets, kneepads, and clubs. Welcome to the inauguration, fellow citizens! Don’t come any closer!
All of this, you understand — 25,000 soldiers, a military force probably unmatched in this city since Abraham Lincoln was peeking over the parapets at Fort Stevens — is here because of what happened on January 6, when the propaganda-poisoned mob of Trumpists rushed into the Capitol. That particular incident, which was hyped endlessly by the outgoing President of the United States and could have been foreseen by anyone with common sense, could have been stopped by a small fraction of the number of troops who are here now. But as a general rule, the only way that our elected leaders know how to communicate that they’re taking something seriously is by showering it with vast quantities of money or guns. Here we have both. They could have at least had all of these soldiers and cops do something useful, like stick tourists with vaccines. But no. They have all deployed to Harden the Perimeter and stand around menacingly on empty streets next to boarded-up Pret a Mangers and rest their trigger fingers lovingly on their guns and ensure that no citizens are able to penetrate the Security Zone and endanger our democracy by getting within binocular distance of the swearing-in ceremony.
The mob from January 6 did not do this to us. We do this to ourselves. Two things that I know for sure are that violent white nationalist right wingers will be a serious problem for years to come, and that turning downtown DC into a cordoned-off military zone will do absolutely nothing to fix that problem. It is natural for people who have experienced trauma and are dealing with fear to grasp for anything that feels like security. But anyone who believes that the way to promote equality and freedom and unity and nonviolence is by ratcheting up the security state will find themselves regretting that impulse soon enough. We all witnessed the same mistakes during the War on Terror, but the bulk of its abuses happened overseas, and enough time has passed that we now must play at this hazardous game again. Just remember that we already know how this sort of overreaction to a traumatic national event ends.
The people who stormed the Capitol came here to stop Joe Biden’s inauguration. And guess what? They did it. Nobody can go. Congratulations, America. We showed them.
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.