The Capitol Riot Proves We Need to Educate

Education has the power to mitigate the spread of radicalization.
January 11, 2021
Protesters enter the U.S. Capitol Building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Elections have consequences, as people on all sides of the political spectrum like to point out. When we choose our leaders, we are choosing to live with the consequences. And a lesson from history is that we must choose our leaders carefully.

The events of last week made this lesson painfully clear. Four years ago, the United States elected a man who has indicated, through word and deed, that he does not believe in the fundamental tenets of democracy. And last week, that man, true to form, encouraged his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol, assault our Congressional leaders and undermine the solemn process of certifying the will of the people.

In many ways, it was shocking. In other ways, it came as no surprise at all. What happened in Washington last week has happened before.

I am a scholar of the Holocaust, and I want to be very clear that I do not equate President Donald Trump with Hitler, nor do I believe that his supporters are Nazis (although there are certainly neo-Nazis among them). But I learned long ago that a democracy can be destroyed from within. And I am reminded once again why it is so important that we continue teaching history, continue learning its lessons and continue educating people about how to treasure the privilege that is democracy.

It is easy to forget that Adolf Hitler first came to power through a free and fair democratic election. Germans voting in 1932 weren’t voting for war and genocide; they were voting for a populist leader who spoke to their anger and grievances. And then they lived with the consequences of that vote: in February 1933, Hitler’s alliesburned down the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament. It was a physical attack on the seat of government, horribly echoed last Wednesday.

Just as right-wing media tried to pin last week’s riot on Antifa, the Nazis tried to obscure their involvement in the Reichstag fire by blaming communists. But unlike last week’s riot, 1933’s putsch was a success: The attack provided Hitler with the excuse to dissolve parliament and assume emergency powers. That same year, he created a new court system, all in the name of security.

A Capitol Police officer was killed in last week’s insurrection, and we’ve all seen the videos of offices ransacked, property stolen and other officers assaulted and overrun. Since the attack, bombs have been located and firearms recovered. Had those bombs gone off or had those weapons been fired, we could well have had our own Reichstag fire.

Protesters interact with Capitol Police inside the U.S. Capitol Building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

We didn’t, of course. Our democracy continues to function — as evidenced by the Electoral College certification that was delayed but not halted. Our courts have stood strong and independent. Our decentralized, federal system makes it nearly impossible for one individual or faction to usurp control, a testament to the enduring wisdom and foresight of the Founding Fathers.

Last week’s insurrection was powered by conspiracy theories, which spread with near-impunity on social media. Conspiracies about voting machines. About rampant pedophilia. About Jewish power. In one widely seen photograph, one Trump supporter wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the horrific words, “Camp Auschwitz.”

I am always amazed at how the survivors of the Holocaust, in spite of all they saw, remind us to be alert. “Just because the Nazis are gone does not mean that evil is gone in this world,” said the survivor George Papanek in 1996. “Take seriously what is happening in the world now and be engaged.”

What’s the best way to fight surges in hatred? I believe last week’s events remind us of the need to educate, to stand up for truth, to build bridges of understanding. There may not be much that can be done to change the minds of those already pursuing extremist ideals, but education is the strongest antidote to the fever sweeping across too much of our country. Education has the power to mitigate the spread of radicalization and even prevent it from taking hold.

Education has the power to mitigate the spread of radicalization.

On the day of President Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the USC Shoah Foundation launched an educational project called “100 Days to Inspire Respect.” Each day for more than three months, USC published new educational resources on themes including racism, xenophobia and civic responsibility. Such lessons are crucial — regardless of the party or president in power — because who we choose to lead us is based on the values we hold dear. The 100 Days to Inspire Respect will run again beginning January 20, 2021.

When our Capitol is under attack, we are all under attack. It is up to all of us to teach history, teach democratic values, teach civics. It is up to all of us to keep our democracy alive.

Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi Executive Director Chair of the USC Shoah Foundation. He is also the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education.

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