More than a hundred, mostly young, mostly black, men and women looted and vandalized businesses in Philadelphia last week. The police were overwhelmed, and relatively few arrests were made. The mob coordinated its movements and targets through social media. No one was killed, but property damage was substantial. There will be demands for ‘law and order’ from the usual politicians, and a frightened public will listen to whomever seems most sincere in their demands that these ruffians be brought to justice. There can be no excuse for this type of behavior in a civilized society, we shall be told. The survival of our republic hangs in the balance, some will insist. The perpetrators must be found and imprisoned or chaos will reign supreme…or at least that is what our politicians will tell us. Fear and anger get people to vote. The trashing of an Apple phone store breaks our hearts. We imagine thugs rampaging through our living rooms as we watch Fox and Friends.
On the other hand, thousands of mostly middle-aged, mostly white, men and women descended on the Capitol of our democracy on January 6 and vandalized that building. Windows were broken; doors were smashed; offices were ransacked; carpets were smeared with feces; and our elected officials and their staffs were terrorized. The mob coordinated its activities under the direction of politicians and political influencers with paramilitary equipment. The police were overwhelmed, and no arrests were made. One police officer died from injuries he suffered on that day, and one rioter was killed when she tried to propel herself into the House chamber over barricades set up by Congressional bodyguards. Calls for the former President to call in the National Guard were ignored, and the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next was frustrated for the first time in our history.
Many of those demanding law and order after the Philadelphia looting had nothing to say after the insurrection on January 6. An attack on the Capitol was treated by some pundits as an exercise in free speech, rather than as an attempted coup. The attack on retail stores in Philadelphia was treated as the true breakdown of civilization. The invasion of the Capitol was alleged to be the work of overenthusiastic visitors. Arrests were subsequently conducted, and some of the most militant of the paramilitary participants in the Capitol insurrection were sentenced to jail. Fortunately for those few indicted and convicted, the former President has already suggested that he would pardon them if he got another four years in the Oval Office.
Surely, the phone-grabbing, sneaker-stealing vandals in Philadelphia have no such prospect for absolution. Those who are apprehended will face swift and harsh justice. The men and women who assaulted the Capitol police and threatened the lives of our elected officials may end up with statues celebrating their valor. After the Civil War, the South was decorated with statues of those most active in that effort to destroy the United States. Perhaps those convicted of sedition for the January 6 insurrection will have their faces carved into Mt. Rushmore if the next assault on our democracy succeeds. The advocates of an autocratic, authoritarian regime to replace our ever-contentious democratic institutions have already drawn up the replacement for our Constitution in a document benignly entitled Project 2025.
Smash and grab thefts, flash mob vandalism, contract car-jacking, and similar criminal acts are spreading like a virus through our nation. These are relatively new antisocial activities, and they will inevitably lead to ever more cumbersome countermeasures, such as restricted access to stores and refitting glass display cases with unbreakable plastic. The persistence of car-jacking and other methods for auto thefts is puzzling, given the variety of engineering innovations developed over the past few decades to frustrate these types of activities. Insurance rates for businesses and autos will rise sharply unless these assaults on commercial and personal property abate. Our democracy will survive the mischief inflicted on us by the numbskulls who enjoy burglary, but the same may not be true of the wounds inflicted by the politically motivated.
The assault on our democracy by men and women seeking a government more consistent with their own views on ‘morality’ and their ‘God given rights’ is not new. The nation had barely made it through a difficult birth when President George Washington had to deal with the Whiskey Rebellion. The Capitol (which had not yet been built) was not attacked or vandalized by these malcontents, but the right of the established government to enforce rules that applied everywhere to everyone was challenged.
Since that first administration, our nation has crept forward slowly and inconsistently toward the ideal of “liberty and justice for all.” January 6 was a major setback in the struggle to achieve the objectives outlined in the Constitution, but it did not cause irrevocable damage. What was obvious on January 6 and in the revelations that followed was that many Americans, including many of those who have taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, believe they would be better off with a more autocratic, authoritarian government headed by a strongman (or strongwoman) with considerably more power than the President currently has.
Many other nations have gone down this road to simpler decision-making in the hope of giving a particular segment of the citizenry dominance over less influential groups. The destination sought may look like paradise from a distance, but it inevitably morphs into a dictatorship as more competing interests are shoved aside by the most ruthless participant. The authors of the Constitution envisioned a nation that would make decisions beneficial to all by taking into consideration the hopes and dreams of all its citizens. That still seems like a good idea. We should not abandon it or trash it.
Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the U.S., as well as in England, Germany, and France.