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A new year. Time to shed off the old and start anew. But sometimes, the baggage of the past comes back to haunt us. The weight of events gone by seems to overwhelm the present. This year is a reminder that we are still captive of what has come before.

The impact of the past four years came into stark relief. The division and unrest within our country has not subsided with the election of a new government. The well-established mechanism for the transfer of power has come under assault, something the rhetoric and actions of outgoing President Trump presaged.

I watched appalled at the image of a Confederate flag being paraded through the Capitol building. While I may understand their frustration, in much the same way I can comprehend the feelings that minorities may have as the impetus for protest, when it turns into rioting, I condemn them both. Any person who participates in violence during a protest should be prosecuted. This is unequivocal. The punishment meted out is subjective, but the charge is not. The invasion and damage of property or violence against others are crimes, and we should not attempt to rationalize it.

We have now allowed motivation to justify action. If you are wound up enough about an issue, it now seems perfectly acceptable to act out that frustration in any manner you see fit. Upset with the situation, “Go protest.” Really angry with the world, “Go riot!” Either one is acceptable so long as you feel the underlying condition warrants it. I disagree.

I had sympathy with those who protested police shootings and was later appalled as they turned to riots. It seemed inevitable as outside parties also capitalized on the situation to transform the events into violent actions. I was disgusted that law enforcement allowed a squatter camp (CHOP — Capitol Hill Organized Protest) of rioters to establish itself in Seattle. Public and private property was damaged. Business was disrupted. Individual rights infringed. Yet it stood.

This set a destructive example, corrosive to the functioning of our society. Another small step toward anarchy — a state of disorder due to the absence or “non-recognition” of authority. Isn’t this exactly where we have gotten?

Numerous groups of every ilk, across the political spectrum, now believe that their actions are justified because they feel that our government, manifest in its organizations from police to Congress, is illegitimate and without moral authority.

I am even more disturbed by the recent actions in Washington (as if I weren’t already concerned enough about the shenanigans in our nation’s capital).

The break-in at the Capitol building is orders of magnitude more significant than what has happened anywhere else in our country. It is an escalation of action that has moved us closer toward a breakdown of our political system.

Was it an attempt to “overthrow” the government, a coup d’état? I doubt there was sufficient thought or organization to fit that definition. However, stopping the Electoral College certification might well come close. Regardless, it was a deliberate attempt to disrupt the legitimate functioning of Congress. No matter how misguided some of the participants may have been, they deserve to be prosecuted for that trespass.

How culpable was our current president in this debacle? He may not be the proximate cause, but he certainly set the stage for events. He has consistently attacked the validity of the national election (even before the votes were cast). He has not acknowledged that within the system established in our Constitution, he lost the election. One might even argue, with some solid ground, that his words and actions on the morning of the assault incited the crowd to action.

I have frequently heard, “He doesn’t really mean that” when he makes exaggerated statements. But as we have now discovered, “words matter.” Apparently, the common understanding of his phraseology is far different from what he imagines.

Regardless, by speech and actions he has demonstrated promotion of “self” over the good of the country. Even if one tangentially accepts that the presidential election was in question, the full legal process was exhausted, and according to our Constitution, the results are certified. Advocating otherwise is detrimental to our form of government and undermines the perception of its legitimacy. As a consequence, a significant group of citizens now significantly questions the very bedrock of our republic.

Have the words of a sitting president evoked notions of sedition (conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of the state)? The First Amendment likely protects the “speech” component for Trump, but perhaps not the action of his followers. According to the Smith Act (last used to prosecute Communists in the 1950s but still on the books), “preventing, hindering or delaying the execution of any law of the United States or seizing, taking or possessing any property of the United States” is a federal crime.

In this respect, the DC rioters who invaded the Capitol are not alone. There have been numerous incidences where federal property was impacted by violent protests. It will be difficult to prosecute one group and let the others run free. However, the direct assault on Congress simply cannot stand without punishment, even if “sedition” is not the applicable charge.

For months, I have feared that we would face increasing politically motivated violence. The assault on the Capitol is merely the latest chapter, albeit a significant escalation.

Each barb thrown across the aisle in Congress, vilifying the opponent, delegitimizes that official.

Each failure to follow the law (here I get on a very slippery slope) undermines its validity. Every violation of property makes the next easier to accept. Condemning our constitutional processes casts doubt on the government’s moral authority. Both sides are guilty, spiraling each other out of control.

Each step (tiny and great) further undermines the faith in our system of government. The failure to accept those processes, the non-recognition of the state’s legitimacy, is the very essence of anarchy.

Is that our future?

Dave Clark is a Kingsport businessman and a former alderman.

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