The lesson of the Capitol riot must be that nobody is above the law

'The America I woke up to is not the America I love'

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One of my most treasured birthday presents came from a colleague a few years ago: a small, leather-bound copy of the US Constitution. It sits on display on a table in the entryway to my apartment as a reminder to my son and I – and to anyone who comes to visit – of what binds America and what we hold dearest. The Constitution established our national government and fundamental laws; it guaranteed basic rights for our citizens.

As an American who spent most of her life in other countries and has now returned to the US, I watched in horror yesterday as the Capitol came under attack.

As a former war reporter, I am familiar with chaos and disorder – the tear gas, the broken windows, the riots. I am just not used to seeing it in America.

The America I woke up to this morning is not the America that I love and believe in. Watching the images of rioteers storming of the US Capitol, our ethos and what we adhere to – what is just and fair – was crushed.

The sun rises over the White House in Washington, U.S., January 7, 2021. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
The sun rises over the White House in Washington, US, January 7. Reuters

The police acted slowly to stop Trump loyalists from barreling past barricades into the Capitol. And this is not over. It may well be a sign of things to come if our institutions continue to erode. What happened yesterday in the Capitol could not have happened elsewhere – in Canada, Britain or France.

Donald Trump has less than two weeks left in the White House. But even in that limited time he can be dangerous. The US president is still encouraging his followers – the red-hat 'Make American Great Again' crowd – to follow his 'ideals', his distorted version of justice and freedom. His supporters' version of “Give me Liberty of Give Me Death” translates into not wearing masks, gathering in large numbers, carrying guns and flaunting dangerous conspiracy theories. In their world, human rights, rule of law and freedom of press do not exist.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 07: A lone Trump supporter holds a flag outside the U.S. Capitol January 7, 2021 in Washington, DC. The U.S. Congress has finished the certification for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ electoral college win after pro-Trump mobs stormed the Capitol and temporarily stopped the process.   Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP
A Trump supporter outside the US Capitol on the morning of January 7, in Washington, DC. AFP

Mr Trump is certainly guilty of inciting his followers, and sedition is a felony in the US. Yesterday's events were an affront to US democracy. Back in school, I studied the writings of America's Founding Fathers – which included the first four American presidents – how they shaped a nation. Benjamin Franklin wrote: “The good-will of the governed will be starved if not fed by the good deeds of the governor”.

Members of the New York Army National Guard outside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. Joe Biden was formally recognized by Congress as the next U.S. president early Thursday, ending two months of failed challenges by his predecessor, Donald Trump, that exploded into violence at the U.S. Capitol as lawmakers met to ratify the election result. Photographer: Graeme Sloan/Bloomberg
Members of the New York Army National Guard outside the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, US, on January 7. Bloomberg

Yesterday we saw the governor, or rather President Donald Trump, stoking the fire, as he fuelled baseless conspiracy theories, inciting his supporters to violence. By thinking only of himself and not the good of the nation, he trampled on the values of the US Constitution, the framework and laws on which the country runs. Laws are the backbone of a nation and without that backbone in place, we will descend into anarchy – and not just for a few hours as it appeared yesterday.

Never have we Americans been so divided in our political beliefs, whether it is our views on justice or health care, from minimum wages to housing, to education to fundamental human rights, the divide is growing wider.

This morning I woke to commentators and political scientists here in America calling for Donald Trump to be impeached and convicted. The New York Times branded him a "willful arsonist who lit the match under the fabric of our constitutional republic." What we know is what Mike Pompeo warned voters back in March 2016 that Donald Trump would be "an authoritarian president who ignored our constitution".

Donald Trump started a fire. He appears determined to break everything before he leaves office. His Republican Party has enabled him and now they are split in two. Mr Trump has to go and face the consequences of his actions – if only to show ordinary Americans that even he – the commander-in-chief – is not above the rule of law.

Janine di Giovanni is a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs