It is time to move beyond asking what responsibility former President Trump bears for the attacks on our Capitol building on Jan. 6. That question has now been answered. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said after the Impeachment trial, President Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the attacks and was guilty of a “disgraceful dereliction of duty.”
Now we must ask each other more difficult questions if we want to make sure that nothing like Jan. 6 happens again. The first is:
What made this group of our fellow Americans so vulnerable to Trump’s incitement that they became domestic terrorists? Most of them seem to have lived normal lives. They are the people we grew up with, went to school with, worked with, and live with in our neighborhoods. What transformed them into a savage mob?
The answers begin with the same factors that have made our politics so partisan, tribal, and divisive because the insurrection of Jan. 6 grew out of that political tribalism. Those factors are the growing power of interest groups and political parties to give limitless amounts of money to candidates and thereby constrain their independence; the gerrymandering of districts which makes elected representatives fearful of primaries from their left and right and therefore unwilling to work with the other party; and partisanization of the media which deepens the political divisions in search of better ratings. Add to all those divisive factors the cultural and political alienation that millions of Americans feel as a result of the big changes that have occurred in our social values and demographic realities, the widespread economic insecurity that has resulted from revolutionary changes in technology, and an irresponsible president who put self above country and Constitution. The result we got was the previously unimaginable attacks at our Capitol on Jan. 6.
Over the years in which partisanship has grown into the corrosive tribalism that brought about the violence on Jan. 6, many government reforms have been recommended to counter its causes. Where possible, these reforms should be implemented urgently, and new reforms should be offered and tried.
But there is another possible treatment for our current national crisis which is taught by the Bible in the commandment to the Children of Israel to love strangers because “you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9). That commandment appears as many as 36 times in the Bible. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the late Chief Rabbi of the UK, explained that repetition was because the Bible understands the dangers of tribalism to strangers, to God’s children who are different. Rabbi Sacks wrote:
“We are tribal animals. We form ourselves into groups… Towards strangers we feel fear and that fear is capable of turning us into monsters.”
That is one insightful explanation of the insurrection of Jan. 6. The people who marched on the Capitol and, I suspect, millions more who stayed home, felt so insecure, alienated and fearful that they concluded that millions of their fellow citizens, including the people who work for them in the Capitol, were “strangers,” deserving their hatred, abuse, and violence.
The Bible not only explains, but also conveys, the foundation for a transformational response to the political tribalism that now divides and weakens us. Most Americans share what has been called our national, civil religion — an open tolerant faith, rooted in the Biblical narrative of history that begins with the belief that we are all children of the same Creator. Our political rights to life, liberty, and happiness, as our founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence, are the endowment all of us receive from our Creator. Those truths have tied us together through most of our history as one family and one nation, and meant that we have debated and disagreed with each other without dividing. But now, we have strayed from those great truths with tragic consequences for our country.
Now we need to stop seeing each other as “strangers” and once again think of ourselves as members of one big tribe — America. We need to reach out to each other to try to understand what has separated us so we can rebuild bridges of unity and restore civil discourse, domestic tranquility and problem-solving government. Our elected leaders in both parties in Washington must act like leaders again and begin this difficult process of reconciliation. If they do, the American people are likely to follow.
President George Washington speaks to us of a time like this in his farewell address in September 1796:
“It is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness,… indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest…”
America is now dangerously past that “first dawning.” Before it is too late, we must find a way to again treat each other not as “strangers” but as fellow Americans.
Joseph I. Lieberman was a senator from Connecticut and is the founding chairman of No Labels.