Last Wednesday was America’s “Day of Broken Glass,” Arnold Schwarzenegger opined on Sunday, comparing the deadly invasion of the Capitol building in Washington to the Nazis’ 1938 Kristallnacht.
An absurd, obscene comparison, we’d all like to say, dismissively.
Kristallnacht was the night when Nazi thuggery showed its full, vile, anti-Semitic face and its capacity to wreak vast murderous havoc in an indulgent climate — truly the prelude to the Holocaust, to the genocide of millions. It was the night, just to get personal for a second — as millions of Jews today can still get about the events of 1938 and the subsequent seven years — when the Frankfurt synagogue my great-grandfather founded went up in flames.
January 6, we would dearly like to think, was nothing of the kind. It was a deadly breach of the American legislature, led by a small mob of extremists, followed by a muddled rabble, fired up by a bitter, defeated, pyromaniacal president. All of that, but not more than that. A shameful blow to American democracy, but one that its perpetrators were able to inflict only because law enforcement so dismally failed to prepare adequately for the well-telegraphed chaos ahead. A profound shock. A resonant warning. But one that America will quickly take to heart, and from which it will quickly recover.
Yes, that’s what we’d dearly like to think. But are we certain?
For better or worse, the test of the hypothesis will not be long in coming. Even as January 6 is investigated, January 20 looms — and with it, widely publicized warnings, warnings that no law enforcement authorities can this time underestimate, that the extremists intend to up the ante. On Wednesday, a week after the assault, and a week before Joe Biden’s inauguration, the FBI told police chiefs across the US to be on high alert for potential violent attacks “on state capitols, federal buildings, the homes of congressional members and businesses.”
I’m sure that everyone reading this piece wants to believe that Schwarzenegger’s Kristallnacht parallel was overblown — outrageous, even. America knows to brace for more trouble ahead in the next few days, but we all want to believe that this time the forces of law and order will deploy effectively. That any protests will be contained. That any violence will be efficiently quelled. Unlike the Germany of 1938, the authorities in the US are not looking on indulgently as thuggery runs riot.
Crucially, everyone reading this piece wants to believe that the extremists will indeed turn out to be a minority — the kind of minority that afflicts even the most stable of democracies, and that stable democracies are well capable of marginalizing.
We all want to believe that in the America that played so central a role in defeating the Nazis and in liberating the death camps 75 years ago, Auschwitz-extolling shirts are the preserve of only the smallest minority. We all want to believe that the violent self-styled patriots who were able to stain American democracy last week stand in stark conflict with the abiding essence of America — that they are un-American.
In this era of unprecedentedly efficient communication, where lies and fakery and evil can be so swiftly, effectively spread on social media and so mightily persuasive, we all want to believe that reason and tolerance will nonetheless prevail. But since big lies are so much easier to disseminate to vast impressionable masses in 2020 than in the 1930s and 1940s — while the consequences are no less unthinkable — the silent majority of the tolerant needs to ensure that it does not stay silent.
It is with respect for the wonder that is America and a sense of universal self-interest that this outsider hopes and prays for our mighty ally to show in the next few days that Schwarzenegger’s warning is indeed absurd and obscene. That last Wednesday was a horrible lapse. A blip, not a prelude. And that reason and tolerance and mutual respect have reasserted themselves
Israel pulled back from the abyss after the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 because, somewhere in our national psyche, we recognized that we were doomed as a nation, in this treacherous part of the world, if we destroyed our resilience by tearing ourselves apart from within. Well, the free world is doomed if America tears itself apart from within.
So it is with respect for the wonder that is America — beacon of freedom, protector of minorities — and a sense of universal self-interest that this outsider hopes and prays for our mighty ally to show in the next few days that Schwarzenegger’s warning is indeed absurd and obscene. That last Wednesday was a horrible lapse. A blip, not a prelude. And that reason and tolerance and mutual respect have reasserted themselves.
“As heartbreaking as all this is, America will come back from these dark days,” an optimist said earlier this week. “Our democracy has been tempered by wars, injustices, and insurrections. I believe, as shaken as we are about the events in recent days, we will come out stronger because we now understand what can be lost.”
And who was that optimist? That, too, was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Let’s fervently hope that, in this, he is right.
** An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.
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