A moment in America, unimaginable but perhaps inevitable

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Copyright 2020 Jacquelyn Martin. All rights reserved.

Authorities secure the area outside the U.S. Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

To see it unspool — to watch the jumbled images ricochet, live, across the world's endless screens — was, as an American, a struggle to believe your eyes. But there it was, in the capital city of the United States in early January 2021: a real-time breaking and entering the likes of which the republic has never seen.

The U.S. Capitol was overrun by violent supporters of Donald Trump, who exhorted them to march on the domed building as lawmakers inside carried out their constitutional duty by certifying his electoral defeat. The proceedings were quickly abandoned as the selfie-snapping mob smashed windows, marched through hallways and rummaged through lawmakers’ desks.

Fourteen days before Joe Biden is set to be inaugurated on the very same site, elected officials sheltered in place in their own building. Agents barricaded themselves inside congressional chambers, guns drawn. The stars and stripes — soaring over public property — was lowered, then replaced as a blue Trump flag ascended.

In one of the day's most indelible images, a hoodie-clad trespasser sat in a chair overlooking the Senate floor — minutes after it had been vacated by Trump's own vice president, Mike Pence — waving his fist in front of a thick, ornate curtain designed to summon the trappings of democracy.

This was not “the peaceful transfer of power” so lionized by the American tradition. Not even remotely. “This,” Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said, "is an absolute disgrace."

The United States on Wednesday seemed at risk of becoming the very kind of country it has so often insisted it was helping: a fragile democracy.

“This is not dissent,” Biden said in a televised address. “It’s disorder. It’s chaos.”

Part of the point of building magnificent structures like the Capitol in the first place was to erect actual physical representations of an abstract system of government — deliberate, solid edifices as immutable and inviolable as their people hope the democracy itself will be. “This temple to democracy” was what Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, called the Capitol building after things calmed down.