It happens every time. Something awful transpires — something that indicates the venality of the nation’s leaders or certain of its people — and we are treated to the same refrain by swaths of the newly-shocked: namely, “This isn’t the America we know.”
It happened after Hurricane Katrina when hundreds of thousands of mostly Black people were left to fend for themselves or die in New Orleans. Although social media wasn’t a thing yet — this was 2005, when the Earth was young— you could still hear the surprise from commentators in mainstream media, on websites, and via e-mail listservs.
“How could this happen in our country?” the voices intoned. People stranded on rooftops, waiting for rescue from helicopters that in many cases never came. Thousands of people gathered without food or water in the Superdome or Convention Center, their government at all levels — federal, state, and local — having failed to protect them. Watching the horror unfold on national television, they intoned that this “wasn’t the America they know.”
It happened after Charlottesville in 2017, when the president defended a racist mob that had descended upon that town, insisting that some among them were “good people,” even though the event had been organized exclusively by neo-Nazis and other white nationalists. When he praised them, even after one of their number drove into a crowd of antiracists and killed Heather Heyer, many were once again stunned. And again, they insisted, this “wasn’t the America they know.”
More recently, we heard it in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. As they watched the officer kneel on Floyd’s kneck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the horror was coupled with the same kind of incredulity. My God, they screamed, this is “not the America I know.”
And now, after a mob of several hundred, acting on behalf of a mob of several thousand, acting on behalf of their cult leader, overran the Capitol in search of lawmakers to murder so as to fulfill that leader’s dictatorial fantasy, we hear it again. This, we are assured, is not the America they know.