On the morning of January 7, Mr. Appel’s AP Human Geography students opened their Google Classroom feeds to these three questions. Following a complicated and emotionally charged day, these inquiries sparked an interesting conversation, one that is far from over in both our country and community.
What did you see happening?
On January 6, 2021, a bizarre terrorist attack struck the nation. In a display of the sheer stupidity (and danger) of the event, Aaron Mostofsky, son of Brooklyn judge and former National Council of Young Israel President Steven (Shlomo) Mostofsky, marched side by side with Nazis, wearing shirts proclaiming “6MWE” a slogan that stands for “6 million was not enough,” meaning that “not enough” Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. A son of a Jewish New York judge and a group of Nazis joined forces to raid “The Most Secure Building in America.”
How did we get here?
It is not a divisive statement to relate the results of the general election in November to the horrific events of January 6. Many on the right felt deeply wronged by what many Trump supporters claimed to be a “stolen election.” If not for the belief in this notion, it is unlikely that the terrorists would have rioted. COVID-19, while a less direct cause, also led us to this dark place. As a result of more Americans voting by mail than ever before, President Trump was able to create suspicion over the validity of the election results. If 2020 had been a “normal” year, he likely would not have had as much success as he did in drumming up support behind his belief that the election was rigged.
When President Trump was elected in November of 2016, many people found the left’s reaction to be alarmist. “How bad could it possibly be?” they said. “It’s just 4 years. What could really go wrong?” Four years later, amidst a raging global pandemic, we sat glued to our televisions and Twitter feeds as people stormed into the capitol building holding Confederate flags and our teachers tried to hold our attention, their voices blaring out of our computer speakers. On one of the darkest days in recent American history, we continued learning statistics and calculus through Zoom. Although it was impossible to predict just how bad it would get, it is fair to say the alarms some have been signaling since 2016 indicated greater danger than was the consensus at the time.
America’s racial history is obviously far too much to unpack in 500 words, but in totality, it has never been easy to be a person of color in this country. Everyone knows that for the first century of our democracy, slavery was legal. But following the Reconstruction Era, when America had a chance to move towards racial equality, southern politicians instead came up with Jim Crow laws. The Civil Rights Era in the 60s was yet another chance to move forward. Although much changed for Black Americans following President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964–legally ending the segregation created by Jim Crow–much stayed the same. In the early summer of 2020, 4 years after Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem protesting police brutality, the country erupted in protest following the murder of George Floyd. Half a year later, people holding Confederate flags led an armed insurrection of the Capitol. It is difficult to believe that these events are unrelated. The Capitol riot could be directly attributed to racial backlash that usually occurs after periods of social unrest.
What happens next?
Joe Biden starts his term on January 20, 2021. The failed insurrection attempt did not change that. But congressional Democrats are demanding accountability and the Senate trial of Donald J. Trump is scheduled to begin soon after Biden takes office.
The divisions in our nation are bigger and deeper than just one man, but the path to healing starts with him no longer being in office.
An investigation needs to happen into national security practices in the D.C. area. The riot shows that no amount of planning, money, and security theater can prevent a catastrophic event that is supposedly “impossible.” No person in a place of authority is above scrutiny and imperfection. The leadership of federal law enforcement agencies and of Capitol Police needs to be investigated and those individuals who ignored warnings of the impending siege must be held accountable. Police officers who are deemed to be complicit in the failed insurrection need to be immediately investigated and fired. All branches of the military and law enforcement agencies need to be purged of white supremacist and extremist members.
While investigating the failures of law enforcement seems like a clear enough concept, the battlegrounds of the internet seem to be another story. Many on the right question why Trump is banned from Twitter for his role in stoking and inciting the coup attempt while murderous despots like Mohammad bin Salman, who allegedly ordered the killing of dissident Jamaal Kashoggi with a “bone saw” in 2018, are allowed to spread their ideas and propaganda on the platform. This is a real question with no obvious answers.
Although foreign dictators and autocrats may not have used Twitter to encourage mobs on American soil, corrupt rulers outside of America have certainly used the platform to spread misleading information and to overshadow democratic processes. Why should Twitter step in to protect democracy in America but also continue to provide demagogic dictators outside of the United States a worldwide audience?
Another legitimate area of concern is the vast and unchecked power of a small number of tech billionaires to control the national dialogue in America. The CEOs of Twitter, Facebook, and Google can technically stop and alter the spread of any news story in America. They may be using their unlimited power to protect American democracy in this instance (or so they argue) but how could this power be corrupted? The group of the “big three” tech CEOs could block or otherwise slow the spread of any negative exposés against their own companies. If these monopolies are allowed to continue growing out of control, the potential for corruption and self-dealing is highly problematic.
It is clear that tech companies hold Trump to a different standard than an average Twitter user, purely by virtue of Trump’s position as the most powerful person in the world. It is reasonable that Trump’s speech on online platforms is scrutinized to a higher standard than a “random” state representative or county commissioner who endorses a radical protest or claims election fraud. The president, because his office is so powerful and his media influence so significant, can cause any number of people to believe any number of ludicrous and potentially violent conspiracy theories.
Trump spilled gasoline on the fire of national division, not only according to leftists and liberals, but also according to number three House Republican Liz Cheney and a number of other current and former GOP officials. Because an out-of-control liar like President Trump can sway public opinion in an exponentially more significant and dangerous manner than any other individual in America, he deserves to be silenced according to the rationale of big tech companies. But in the absence of guidelines, rules, and oversight regarding online speech by powerful figures, it is unclear how the haphazard response of a few massively wealthy tech billionaires is a sustainable practice.
Caroline Loscalzo and Aaron Friedman
Managing Editor and News Editor
Graphic: Aaron Friedman