US President Donald Trump’s exit from the White House will forever be etched in people’s memory with the images of his supporters climbing the walls of Capitol Building and breaking into its halls and chambers. There is an image attached to every historic event – the thick black smoke billowing out of the crimson red dome of Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai for the 26/11 incident; the ‘falling man’ with the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks; and a rowdy mob atop the dome of Babri Masjid being the image of the 1992 demolition.
On Wednesday, as an armed pro-Trump mob violently broke into the US Capitol, President-elect Joe Biden called it an “unprecedented assault” that the country has seen in “modern times”. The Capitol Building frames the iconography of this difficult political moment in US history.
And that is why the US Capitol Building, located on a plateau 88 feet above the level of the Potomac River in Washington DC, is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
For the 200-year-old landmark building, which draws its inspiration from St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Wednesday’s attack is a shameful chapter.
But this is not the first time the US Capitol has witnessed violence on its premises. From the British troops burning the building in 1814, Congressmen attacking each other over the issue of slavery in separate incidents between 1856-60, to the explosion in 1915, firings in 1954 and another explosion in 1971 – there is a long list of incidents preceding Wednesday’s chaos.
It has stunned and shocked political leaders in the US and around the world. Barack Obama said the chambers of democracy have been “desecrated”; “distressed” Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for an “orderly and peaceful transfer of power”; and a “furious and saddened” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there is hope only in Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to open a new chapter in US democracy now.
The building’s iconic design
The construction work for the US Capitol, which began in 1793, started out three years after Thomas Jefferson announced a competition to select a design for the building. The competition didn’t produce any satisfactory result. It was only after physician Dr William Thornton, an amateur architect, impressed President George Washington with his design that the US Capitol’s existence came into motion, with the work completing in 1829.
The design of the famous building, spread over an area of 1.5 million square feet, inspired government seats of power around the world such as in Cuba, Argentina, Puerto Rico, and Canada. Even India’s Mysore Palace bears a resemblance to the US Capitol.
Also read: America’s credibility has been stormed
This attack is different
When the War of 1812 was at its peak, the British troops set fire to the US Capitol, bringing it almost to a complete ruin. It was saved only by a torrential rain.
But what was under attack on Wednesday wasn’t just the building but also its complex history, political legacy, and democracy.
“There are few institutions more emblematic of American democracy than the US Capitol. It is a people’s chamber, where elected officials pursue the interests of their constituents, and a place where all Americans are encouraged to visit to meet with Members of Congress and their staff. And yet, for the first time in nearly 200 years, it has been breached by an armed mob attempting insurrection. It’s hard to overstate the impact on democracy, and on America on the whole,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, told ThePrint.
Kugelman added, “What happened on Wednesday represents the darkest and most devastating moment for American democracy in many decades. And it will fall to the incoming Biden administration to pick up the pieces and initiate a healing.”
For the Biden-Harris administration, who are due to enter the White House on 20 January, it won’t be just the US Capitol structure that would require rebuilding but also America’s moral stature around the world, in the post-Trump era.
Trump came to power in 2016 with the promise to ‘Make America Great Again’ or MAGA. But four years down the road, the world seemed to have learned a new lesson, which can well become a case study for future students of political science and sociology in what has come to be known as ‘Trumpism’.
After this, the immediate challenge for the Biden administration will not be China or Iran, but putting their own house in order at a time when the US is already undergoing simmering tensions due to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has brought America’s racist past back into the present.
But then many Americans discovered last year, after George Floyd’s brutal murder by policemen, that racism had never really gone away. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner had famously said.
The US Capitol’s Senate floor and Congress have witnessed many incidents of caning, fistfights and pistol threats in the past – more than 70, according to historian Joanne B. Freeman. But democracy is also about the promise of constant renewal and repair, and that is the promise Biden and Harris bring to the nation now.
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