The Damage of Lies
Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII, for The New York Times
Opinion — Matt Faye
On Wednesday afternoon, January 6th, during the mob siege that overran the capital building, Ashli Babbitt was shot by a security officer as she was trying to breach the doorway to the main chamber of congress. A married, 14-year Air Force veteran from California and owner of a pool cleaning business, she was pushing her way through a door blocked by a hastily erected barricade and armed guards. Ashli was a self-proclaimed Libertarian avid Pro-Trump supporter. She wasn't home with her German shepherd or cleaning a client's pool, she was lying on the floor of our governments capital bleeding from a gun shot wound to the neck. Why?
In calculating the damage caused by one of the greatest lies ever perpetrated on the American people by an elected officials, I might not put the death of a single pool cleaner at the top of the list. I could point to the erosion of America's standing in the world as a bacon of democracy. I could list the others who died that day, including a police officer bludgeoned with a fire extinguisher. I could go on about the loss of confidence in the electoral process that so many Americans will now live with, potentially threatening the future of our democratic government that survives on that confidence. I could even cry about what a shame it is that our nations capital was attacked for the first time sense 1814. No, I choose Ashli. A woman most of us will never know, who died needlessly in an attempt to make a difference for a cause she passionately believed in. A few might call her a patriot who died for her country. Others will call her a criminal trespasser or traitor who put herself in that dangerous situation. Both could be true depending on your angle of view, but both miss the point completely. She was one of us, an American citizen, dead in our nations capital for a cause constructed from a lie.
If you are one of the millions of Americans who believe the election was fraudulent or stolen, I won't argue with you, because arguments should be limited to differences of opinion or the interpretation and significance of known facts, not over the facts themselves. I did not count the votes, nor did you, so we all must rely on the officials we've entrusted who did count them and the courts that rule on election law. They have done so, reported their totals and ruled on any reported evidence of fraud, and the states electors have presented the results to congress who certified the winner of the election according to our political system. We were told well in advance that mail-in voting during a pandemic could produce a red marriage on election night and we should not react until all votes were counted. When the top official in charge of election integrity, a republican, reports that it was the fairest and most scrutinized election in history and no evidence has been brought out to show any signs of fraud significant enough to put the slightest dent in the outcome, suspicions of fraud have to yield to facts. To those who say "I just can't believe it", I understand how you feel. I felt the same way in 2016 when a female law graduate, who dedicated her life to public service, lost to self-proclaimed millionaire reality TV star who never served the public a day in his life. I too protested and shouted "unbelievable". I even claimed that democracy had failed us. But I also took comfort that the election was true and democracy worked. It elected a president based on the majority will of the American people, even when it I thought their will was misguided.
Now Ashli Babbitt is dead. Is it the fault of the security officer who overreacted in a moment of confusion and fear and pulled his trigger rather than take another step back? Do we blame congress or Mike Pence for showing up to work that day? Do we blame ANTFA for some unknown reason, or the "system" as if it were a character with a mind and a will of its own, or the liberal media for being hard on a president who could disregard centuries of political norms before breakfast? Do we blame Ashli for taking such strong action to fight for what she believed in? Or do we blame her for using poor judgement, or being gullible, or for resorting to mob tactics over rule of law? No, no, no, and no.
Many Americans have died fighting for this country, fighting for what they believed in. If we stop right there, we should call Ashli a true patriot and give her a spot in Arlington National Cemetery right along side the rest of those who died for their country. The original colonists broke the law when they believed the laws of England no longer supported justice and freedom. Her outrage and love of country was no less than theirs. The difference is that her patriotism was fueled by fraudulent conspiracy not of her making. But we don't reward the misguided or memorialize their sacrifice. We say "what a shame" and move on to forget tragic and unpleasant stories with no conclusion of glory or victory.
The tragedy here is that the cause she died for was based on a lie originated by the very person she was passionately fighting for. He's been telling her the same lie sense he was first elected, that he would have won the popular vote if not for voter fraud. He told it again and again, before this years election was even held, just to preempt an eventual reality he feared, and he has stuck to this lie despite all evidence to the contrary. He shouted it from his rally pulpit and his twitter horn like a cult leader well aware of the grasp he had on his followers. He used his lies and his followers passionate dedication to his every word as tools in his selfish pursuit of maintaining power at all costs, and to avoid the narcissistic shame of being seen as a looser.
His lie expands well beyond the claims of election fraud. They included the demonizing of the left, the undocumented, the news media, political opponents past and present, social protesters, scientists, intellectuals, anyone not loyal, anyone he could focus his followers anger toward and away from his own failures, all to whip up outrage and loyalty. These claims are not as easily refuted as fraudulent election claims, as their perception can not be counted and verified as easily as vote totals. They should be called lies none the less. Not because they are poisonous, hatful, and anti-democratic (they are that). Nor because there could be no truth to them at all, (there could be), but because they were narratives fabricated to reflect an absolute where no absolute exists. The most effective lies are ones that confound opinion with fact, that pray on fears over reason, that pick and choose bits of truth to permeate and cloud the greater reality, and that use identity devision over the truths that unify us all. He did this with intention and purpose. He made no consideration for their destructive ripple effects nor did he consider his followers as anything more than characters in his deliberately constructed reality show.
The list of persons and organizations that should be held responsible for the shameful display of mob violence on our capital is long, but starts at the top. It includes republican leaders who perpetuated and supported the president and his lies for their own short term political positions, even when they knew they held no truth. What could it hurt they thought. It's shared by the far-right media that broadcast those lies to feed their audience the outrage they craved while collecting their advertising revenue for it. It's shared by all who failed to see the dangerous outcome of emboldening lies on an embittered public. The hypocrisy of blaming the events on a few bad actors amongst an otherwise peaceful demonstration crowd, so soon after they so easily lumped the black lives matter protesters in with the much smaller group of lawless rioters that followed is bitterly laughable. Although mob mentalities are consistent across mobs, the difference between protesting against racial inequality and protesting agains a fabricated lie is profound.
Considering Ashli's death a tragedy is easy. Pinning down why its tragic is far more important. Like the thousands who have died in the military, bound by their duty to their country, in needless conflicts based on fictitious motives or self-serving leaders, its tragic because its perverse and senseless. Democracy works when elections are fair and reliable. It's effective though only if we as voters take our responsibility to task. We have to put our political identity, our special interests, our likes or dislikes of candidates personalities, and put them second in priority to a candidates character. We have to put dedication to truth as the primary qualification for elected office. We have to be much better at identifying and calling out those who perpetually disregard the truth for their own self-interest, and call them out for what they are.
This is the true tragedy of Ashli's needless death. Those who disrupted the status with violent insurrection in the revolutionary war did so to free our nation from the authoritarian rule of a foreign king. They fought for self-representation and liberty. These were the truths they held self-evident and would die for. Ashli was no less passionate or patriotic, but her truths were not self-evident, they were fabricated by a charismatic leader bent on political self preservation. Her blood is on his hands, and he should be held accountable.
This essay is in part a followup to the article The Urgency of Truth by the same author.
Further reading: The American Abyss — The New York Times