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“Patriotism” in light of the Capitol insurrection — why it matters

What does it mean to be patriotic today?

<p>Samantha Cynn is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.</p>

Samantha Cynn is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Well, it finally happened. Donald Trump’s term of office has ended, and a new administration has rolled in to take its place. With policy plans and a platform that could not be more different from the one it replaced, you would think I would be relieved, eager for a return to some semblance of normalcy. Despite it all, however, the events of the past month have left a bitter taste in my mouth — a prevailing fear for the future of our country after years of fraying unity. The catalyst to my anxiety was an event I doubt anyone could forget — the insurrection of the Capitol building on January 6.

The day started normally enough. I dragged myself out of bed far later than any respectable human being should, sat at the kitchen table and scrolled through my phone. I made small talk with my family about the latest news to hit the trending page on Twitter over lunch. I joked with my father about what movie we should distract ourselves with for the afternoon.

My memory of the day is split into two parts — the before and after. The before is a blur. The after could not be more firmly seared into my mind.

As the television provided background noise to our conversation, my father absentmindedly flipped through channels. He turned to the news and we froze, instantly silent. It was early afternoon, and a mob of Trump supporters had gathered outside the Capitol building, having marched from what was supposed to be a peaceful protest against the certification of the election results. They hadn’t entered the Capitol — not yet. But tensions were clearly high, and we had tuned in just in time to hear startled news anchors report minutes later that the insurrectionists had breached the building and congresspeople were scrambling for safety.

My father and I spent hours on our couch with our eyes glued to the television. For a long time, neither of us spoke. It was horrific beyond words. I grabbed my phone and went on social media, searching for more frequent updates and sharing videos and photos uploaded online with my father. I exchanged messages with my friends about the situation inside the building. Stunned and speechless, I sent a text to my mother, oblivious in another room — “Have you seen the news?”

The events playing out on my screen brought me back to some of the darkest days in our University’s history. Not even four years ago, we saw a similar scene in Charlottesville with the Unite the Right rally — when white supremacists stormed the streets and fought with counter protesters, killing activist Heather Heyer. I was not a University student at the time, but I couldn’t believe that something so awful could be happening so close to home. This time, the white supremacists were not gathered on Grounds and in our University community, but in the heart of our country, crowding the halls with their ugly rhetoric and open violence.

My first reaction, when the shock had faded, was anger. It felt warranted, and I relished my rage towards these people — those who claim to love our country yet would not hesitate to defile it. But the anger didn’t stop at the insurrectionists. As the day went on, it began to spread. 

I was furious at this country where I had been born and raised. I was angry because of what the insurrection represented. The insurrection seemed to embody everything I hated about the United States — wrath, nativism and more. It was a gaping wound, exposing how the U.S. is still consumed by prejudice and cruelty, all in spite of our efforts to the contrary.

Watching footage of fellow Americans swarming the Capitol building and actively encouraging brutality, I felt small and helpless, and my brain flooded with bitter questions. How many other American citizens possess the same racist sentiments and appalling views as the insurrectionists on screen — if not openly, then privately? How can we heal the festering hatred that exists in this country? Is it even possible?

In that moment, as reluctant as I am to admit it, I felt as though this is what the U.S. was at its core — irredeemable and filled with hate. 

My disillusionment with the U.S. did not start on the day of the Capitol insurrections. I have tried for years to reconcile my love for this country with my hatred for its deep-rooted, systemic problems. I have had moments of doubt, wondering if my criticisms of American society and its institutions made me unpatriotic. Every now and again, my brain would parrot the same phrase I’ve heard on television or seen in print — “love it or leave it” — and I’d ask myself if the saying had any true merit — if patriotism meant total acceptance.

In the days that have followed the Capitol insurrection, my rage has calmed, albeit more out of fatigue than reassurance. My views on the U.S. have mostly been restored to a state of equilibrium, no longer skewed towards hopelessness. I see now that my anger was a mask to cover up my worry and fear for this country. After seeing such a blatant display of lawlessness and the divisive response to it, I can’t say what the future holds. I’ve always believed myself to be something of a realist — a nice way of saying I’m a pessimist who occasionally finds a silver lining. The state of our nation feels precarious, as if hanging by a thread. It is hard for a person like me to still have faith in our ability to bounce back from hardship and division.

What I can say is that the Capitol insurrection was a manifestation of the ugliness that stains not only the U.S., but the world at large. It stood for blind ignorance and savagery. If we hope to do better, we have to start somewhere — and that means questioning the way things are.

It is not unpatriotic to challenge American institutions that spark hatred like what we saw at the Capitol. In fact, criticizing our country for its wrongdoings is one of the most patriotic things you can do. Most people are not overtly racist or prejudiced, no — but far too many are complacent with the factors that keep racism and prejudice alive. We must go beyond “not being racist” and speak out against individuals, groups and establishments that continue to preserve inequity, no matter how intertwined they are with the American identity.

Perpetuators of the status quo may cry “if you don’t like it here, then just leave.” But it is precisely because we like the U.S. that we want to stay and change it for the better. As said by the late Chicago Sun-Times journalist Sydney J. Harris, the U.S. was “born out of dissatisfaction with the old scheme of things.” That is the ultimate sign of patriotism — a desire for change fueled by love rather than fear. Those who want to improve society love their country enough to acknowledge its faults and work to correct them. They protest because they want the U.S. to be great in a way it never has before. Above all else, they want the U.S. to realize its fullest potential — and what could be more patriotic than that?

Samantha Cynn is a Life Columnist at The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at


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