This is not who we want to be

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This is not who we want to be

Kathleen Stephens
The author was U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2008 to 2011. She is the president of the Korea Economic Institute of America located in Washington, D.C.


In the 1990s I was a career diplomat assigned to the Clinton White House as director for European affairs at the National Security Council (NSC). In the NSC’s unpretentious reception area in the West Wing hung small paintings portraying the 1814 British burning of the White House and Capitol Building during the War of 1812. British visitors, of whom there were many, given the U.S.-Britain “special relationship,” often were surprised or discomfited by the prominence given to this humiliating historical moment. I explained that Americans took pride in the fact that since 1814 no foreign power had occupied our capital or our country.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the Capitol building was saved from likely destruction by the passengers and crew on United Flight 93, who, having heard via cellphone of the moments-earlier attacks on the World Trade Center, rose up against the hijackers, sending the plane crashing into a rural Pennsylvania field far from Washington. After 9/11, security measures around the Capitol and all our public buildings tightened. Fear of foreign terrorist attack was all-consuming.

But it was a crowd of mostly white men, all self-described American patriots, who attacked our Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. As that mob, incited by a sitting American president, marched down the Mall determined to overturn an election, I felt I was in another country. This was an attempted autogolpe — a self-coup — something we diplomats have experience with, as long as it is happening elsewhere. America, we thought, with its strong institutions and long democratic traditions, was immune to this kind of upheaval. And yet, here was the most sacred symbol of American democracy, our grandest public building, defaced by insurrectionists, our elected representatives responsible for completing the constitutional process of confirming the election results scurrying for their lives.

The effort failed, and condemnation was swift, except from the sitting president. The Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called the events “un-American.” President-elect Biden pronounced American democracy under “unprecedented assault,” but insisted, as did many others in a common refrain, that the scenes at the Capitol “do not represent who we are.” Harvard historian Jill Lepore said, “We are off the grid of American history.”

We need political leaders who appeal to our better instincts by insisting, “This is not who we are.” Particularly after the Trump years, President Biden should continue to show his confidence in the American people. But I also understand the sentiments in an on-line discussion on the Reddit forum that started with assertion that “‘This is not who we are’ is a great American myth.” No one argued with that; instead one respondent added, “Right alongside American exceptionalism,” and “It can’t happen here.” Another comment read, “This is exactly who we are, and what are we going to do about it?”

Princeton Prof. Omar Wasow in a Jan. 7 Washington Post op-ed declared that, “Actually, the Capitol riot was quintessentially American.” Prof. Wasow describes the violent occupation in Washington occurring in the same week as the historic victory to the Senate by two Democrats in Georgia (one African American, one Jewish) as an example of a long contest between two competing American traditions: one defined by the racial status quo and ethno-nationalism, and the other egalitarian, coming out of the long struggle for equal rights. It’s an important insight, along with the realization by many Americans, including myself, that we too, like Koreans and just about everyone else, are still “dealing with history,” and at the very least need to be more clear-eyed about our history — and our myths.

Michigan Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA and Department of Defense official, has said that the biggest national security problem for the United States is our own internal division. But we also know that the siege on the Capitol was a strike against democracy worldwide. It is thus all the more important that the partnership of shared values between the Republic of Korea and the United States be renewed and strengthened.

These dark days of January have been punctuated with moments of inspiration and encouragement, and more than a few involved Korean-Americans. On Jan. 3, four Korean-Americans were sworn into the new U.S. Congress, two Democrats, two Republicans. Three are women, one of whom wore a hanbok (traditional Korean dress)— a first for a new Member of Congress — at her swearing-in. The sight of Congressman Andy Kim helping to clean the damaged Capitol in the aftermath was a much-needed example of responsible civic action. Jan. 13 will be recorded in history as the day Donald Trump was impeached for a second time, but I also will remember it as the day Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland spoke movingly at KEI’s virtual Korean-American Day about the importance of her Korean and African-American heritage.

And 100 years after American women obtained the right to vote, Kamala Harris is the first woman, first Asian-American, first African-American to be vice-president of the United States.

This gives me not just hope, but confidence, that in the time of great division and crisis, we will find a way through. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr, whose birthday we mark in this inauguration week, “We must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.”
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