I vividly recall the first time I visited the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston. It was a few days after Senator John McCain died on August 25, 2018. Upon entering the lobby, what I first saw was a condolence book that the public was invited to sign as a tribute the late Republican Senator from Arizona.
It was a year after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville as the divisiveness in American society was continuing to grow. But here in this institution – founded as a legacy to Ted Kennedy, who had served as Democratic Senator in my home state of Massachusetts for 47 years — I felt honored to sign my name in tribute to Senator McCain, a great American patriot whom I held in deep respect despite our very different politics.
Since the horrific attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, I have been thinking about my visits to this civic, non-partisan educational organization, whose programs and exhibits teach about the U.S. Senate and its role in our democracy. At a time when our democracy has been viciously attacked, I have been reflecting on the vision of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, “To preserve our vibrant democracy for future generations, I believe it is critical to have a place where citizens can go to learn first-hand about the Senate’s important role in our system of government.”
As I watched in real time the violent desecration of our sacred U.S. democratic institution by domestic American terrorists, I reflected on my sense of awe sitting in the EMK Institute’s Senate Chamber, which is a full-size replica of the United States Senate Chamber, down to the desks and carpeting. I recalled the quiet reverence of the child asking permission to sit in the Speaker’s chair and the respectful live-floor debates among visitors on actual issues before the U.S. Senate (On my first visit, the issue was the appointment of a U.S. Supreme Court justice, which was debated from different perspectives).
Since January 6th, as I my emotions have ranged from horror and disbelief to grief and pain, I keep asking myself: Is this the same America where I grew up? Is this now my America?
My mind keeps shifting from past to present. I see the images of the Camp Auschwitz hoodies replayed in the media. I remember my father z”l, a first-generation American, who dedicated his life to the principles of American democracy — as an American history major in college, as an American GI who fought the Nazis during World II, and as a public school educator. And I think about the unprecedented rise in anti-Semitism in the past few years, such as the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, as well as arson, fatal stabbings, vandalism, and harassment. ADL, in its most recent Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents in the United States recorded more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism and harassment, an increase of 12 percent over the previous year – including a record number of anti-Semitic incidents in my home state of Massachusetts.
Is what we witnessed on January 6th a harbinger of American democracy to come? I can’t stop thinking about the innocent school children at the EMK Institute learning about democracy in action as they voted in the replica Senate chamber on issues such as extending the school day.
But this week, American children were exposed to images of lawless marauders with weapons who stormed barricades, attacking the U.S. Capitol, destroying property, and inflicting injury on American police.
Is this the image of American democracy that we want children to retain? Is this the democratic legacy that we are bequeathing to them and to the free world? Or do we want to model behavior that engages in civil discourse and healthy debate that keeps democracy alive?
For their sake as well as ours, the time to preserve American democracy is now. Borrowing from the words of the psalmist, I plea to U.S. democracy: “Please don’t forsake us.”