Since Jan. 6, I have been wondering how the images of that awful mob storming the Capitol are affecting the national psyche, particularly when it comes to young viewers. As the violent and ugly images of conflict and mayhem continue to play in an almost nonstop loop on cable TV, I worry what the answer might be.
Saturday, The Sun printed a letter from a teenager in Baltimore that tells me those fears are warranted and that we need to think about how coverage of the events of Jan. 6 and beyond are affecting all of us.
“I am 15 years old and as I write this, I am sitting with my family, huddled together around our television and I look around and see the fear in their eyes,” the letter said. “I sit beside my younger brother, who is wrapped up in my mother’s arms as if her limbs can protect him from the world around us that is threatening our future.”
What a vivid picture of the deep and profound way we connect to what we see on television. And in this week leading up to the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, with fences topped by concertina wire encircling the Capitol and some 20,000 members of the National Guard making Washington look like the Green Zone in Baghdad, I imagine viewers incurring a kind of media-induced post-traumatic stress disorder.
There are cameras everywhere, and you could not tune your TV to a news broadcast over the holiday weekend without seeing the grim images of a capital city under lockdown and a nation on high alert against domestic terrorists threatening to repeat their acts of violent insurrection.
And it wasn’t just Washington. There were equally grim images from Lansing, Michigan; Madison, Wisconsin; and Atlanta, Georgia, to name just a few. My first job out of graduate school was in the state capital in Madison working as press secretary and speech writer for a Democratic lieutenant governor. I remember the sense of awe I felt standing in front of that building before summoning up the determination to go in for my job interview.
But there it was Saturday morning on CNN with its grand arching windows boarded up, looking as cold and silent as a tomb, or perhaps a monument to a lost civilization. It was the same in Lansing, but with the added images of men and women in hunting and camouflage outfits, carrying weapons and milling around on the grounds. Fortunately, there were no major demonstrations at state capitals over the weekend, though states are still on high alert.
But how did we get to the point in 2021 that we let goons wearing hats with horns and fools carrying Confederate and Trump flags break into and temporarily take over the U.S. Capitol?
The letter to The Sun from that 15-year-old threw me back to my adolescence and the way I reacted to watching the inauguration of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in 1961 when I was 11 years old. It is my first political memory. I watched alone and did not understand most of what I was seeing. But I clearly remember being excited by the young man speaking so confidently and passionately about a “torch being passed” to a new generation. I felt good watching him. He made me feel confident, too. Looking back, I now know that was the moment my passion for politics was fired.
I also remember watching nonstop coverage of the dark nights and days after his assassination in 1963, particularly the funeral. I didn’t understand most of that either as I watched alone, but I clearly remember how frightened and lost I felt looking at the riderless horse and dead man’s grieving wife and children on the flickering black and white screen.
I am glad to see all the precautions being taken in Washington and elsewhere this week. And I have nothing but praise for media reporting the stories fully, as troubling as the imagery might be.
I hope people watching the inauguration will feel some of the same sense of safety and confidence in America that I did watching Mr. Kennedy take his place amid all those iconic monuments of democracy. But given the chaos and anger Mr. Trump leaves behind, that seems only a hope.
The fences, barbed wire and armed military presence this week are part of the wretched legacy of our 45th president, along with the fear that 15-year-old in Baltimore saw in the eyes of his family as they watched one of most sacred symbols under siege.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidzurawik.