By Curtis R. Joseph, Jr.
It has been said that there is nothing new under the sun. What has been will be again and what has been done will be done again. Essentially, history repeats itself. That said, we can turn to history as a guide as we navigate our way through today’s goings on. As a country, we have encountered many trying times that have tested our mettle. What did we do on each such occasion? How did we respond?
On August 24, 1814, following a victory in Bladensburg, Maryland, British troops led by Major General Robert Ross marched to Washington, D.C. and, ultimately, set fire to multiple government and military buildings, including the White House (then called the Presidential Mansion), the Capitol building, as well as other facilities of the U.S. government. In this, the darkest hour of the new Republic, the gods had pity on D.C. As a consequence of a heavy thunderstorm, quite possibly a hurricane, the fires were extinguished and the British occupation of D.C. only lasted 26 hours.
Nevertheless, President Madison, as well as numerous military and other governmental officials were forced to flee for their safety. Overall, the burning of Washington did not achieve its desired effects. Rather than demoralizing Americans, it united them. It gave them a cause behind which they could rally and ultimately defeat the British…again. Not only was Washington rebuilt, but the strength and prestige of America was on display for the entire world to see. The young country showed itself to be a force that must be reckoned with.
On December 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base located at Pearl Harbor. The attack went on for more than 2 hours. All told, 21 U.S. ships were either sunk or damaged, 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed, and 2,403 people were killed.
The next day, President Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress and uttered the words that are forever etched in history. Many will recall that Roosevelt called the day one that will “live in infamy”. Within an hour of Roosevelt’s speech, Congress declared war on Japan and Roosevelt signed the declaration.
Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, public opinion had been divided on whether the U.S. should enter the war. However, a poll taken between December 12-17, showed that public sentiment had coalesced such that 97% of Americans supported a declaration of war against Japan. As noted by historian Samuel Eliot Morison, the attack signaled the defeat of Imperial Japan because it had awakened the “sleeping giant”. For his part, once Sir Winston Churchill learned of the U.S. declaration of war, he stated, “We have won the war.” He understood all too well what American involvement meant to the war’s outcome.
On the night of October 4, 1957, an NBC network announcer said, “Listen now for the sound that forevermore separates the old from the new.” What followed was the sound that the Associated Press called the “deep beep-beep”, and it was emanating from Sputnik, the beach ball-sized satellite launched by the Soviets. As the 184-pound silver ball orbited around Earth, it essentially set the space race in motion. The first shot had been fired by the Soviets. How would the Americans respond? History shows that we not only accepted the challenge, but we lived up to it, ultimately landing a man on the moon.
I was a young lawyer preparing for my first series of critical depositions on the morning of September 11, 2001, when my assistant entered my office to tell me that a plane had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. I initially assumed that an amateur pilot had lost his way. Unfazed by the report, I continued to prepare for my depositions. When she returned a few minutes later to advise that a second plane had crashed into the south tower, my thoughts immediately turned to my baby brother, who had just enlisted.
An attack on our soil had not occurred since Pearl Harbor. Thus, the emotions that come with such an occurrence were unfamiliar to us all. Yet, out of it all, something amazing occurred. For a brief window of time, we were all Americans, irrespective of race, religion, sexual preference, economic background, or other demographic. We were simply American. We all seemed to be on the same team. Given today’s hyper-charged environment, that sentiment is certainly one from which we could benefit.
So, when I say, “never forget”, I would like us to recall that moment in time when our love for the country was equal to our love for one another.
This all brings me to the question posed above. What comes next? What will we do as a country after the insurrection that took place at our nation’s Capitol? When historians look back at this time, what will they say about us? How will they say we responded to this dark hour?
One of my favorite books is titled, ‘Reassessing the Presidency’. I picked it up at the Thrifty Peanut, a local second-hand store. The book chronicles each Presidential administration through George W. Bush’s terms and details the ways in which each Presidential administration has endeavored to expand the scope of Presidential power, often to the detriment of our basic liberties and freedoms. I encourage a read of this book.
I make reference to the book because the second impeachment trial of former President Trump has just begun in the Senate. This affects us all…Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Democrat, Republican, voters, non-voters, etc. Many will say that the President should be impeached based on the facts. Many will say the President did nothing wrong. Others will say that what the President did was wrong, but he shouldn’t be impeached for it. We’ll watch Democrats attempt to make a case to the American public, and we’ll watch Republicans attempt to protect the President. Battle lines have been drawn, not for truth’s sake, but for power.
Here we are again. What happens if we allow responsible parties to escape accountability? What happens when we make a conscious, deliberate decision to allow punishable behavior to go unpunished? Those of us who have the blessing of raising children know full well how that works out. Children are constantly testing the limits of boundaries. As it turns out, so are adults. Do we have it in us as a country to simply do the right thing? History wants to know what comes next.