Democracy and the End of Violence
Rep. Jamie Raskin's insight and the shared mission of America and Ukraine
The events in Ukraine—the senseless, criminal butchery triggered by the man in Moscow—have made it hard to focus on much else. In recent days, I’ve wondered whether the plan to talk today about Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin’s new bestseller, Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trial of American Democracy, would feel too disconnected from the overwhelming reality driving the news cycle.
I haven’t lost my sense that the duality of Raskin’s deep personal loss—the suicide of his beloved 25-year-old son, Tommy—and the country’s loss on January 6 last year would offer important insights for reflection. That these two seismic events happened within a week of each other made me wonder how Jamie Raskin was able to pull himself together, marshal his emotions, and lead the Senate trial after Trump’s second impeachment. There’s no simple answer to that question.
But one answer can be found in the latter pages of Unthinkable, not only helping me comprehend the choices this grieving father and public servant faced, but also deepening my sense about what connects America with the besieged nation nearly 6,000 miles away. Raskin helped me think about the realities of violence and the profound role that democracy plays in addressing it.
In the passage that follows, he describes the connection between violence and democracy—the “polar-opposite events” of his son Tommy’s life and the deadly insurrection on January 6—and why he was motivated to do what he could on behalf of his country.
“This precious young man of boundless talent had given all his energy for the idea of the dignity and worth of all human beings—and of all sentient beings. For Tommy, violence was the enemy of humanity and of all living things. The purpose of democracy and its operating system, the law, was to control, even to end, political violence, state violence, criminal violence, racial violence, gender violence, mob violence, the deliberate and needless infliction of pain and suffering on others. The purpose of democracy is to dignify and uplift each person on his or her path in life, to address misfortune as best we can, to make this life a gentler proposition.
“January 6—that stomach-churning, violent insurrection; that desecration of American democracy; that demoralization of all our values; that explosion of seething hatred that caught his sister and his brother-in-law in its tentacles—would have wrecked Tommy Raskin.
“So as a congressman and a father of a lost son and two living daughters, I would take a stand, with everything I had left, against that violent catastrophe in the memory and spirit of Tommy Raskin, a person I have alas, not even begun to properly render in words.”
In my writing for America, America, I often talk about the need to do everything we can to sustain our democracy, to push back against the expanding violence and the rise in autocratic leadership, in the US and globally. But Raskin helps articulate why this is so important. His words are worth repeating: The purpose of democracy is to control, “even to end,” violence in its myriad forms— “to dignify and uplift each person on his or her path in life, to address misfortune as best we can, to make this life a gentler proposition.” To make life a gentler proposition: What a touching thought at a time like this.
Raskin’s reflection is a reminder of the abject depravity that motivates the Butcher of Moscow—the utter polarity between the world that many of us long to build and the hateful violence that drives someone like Vladimir Putin. He will never know the democratic impulse, the democratic yearning, that has helped build America over the last 245 years, and that the people of Ukraine are fighting for now. This is a world where humanity is nourished, where the worst impulses are discouraged, where the effort to improve the quality of life for everyone is central, where the dignity of every individual and the opportunity to pursue one’s own path is at the heart of what binds us.
Sadly and dangerously, there are those among us who admire a strongman like Putin, who are determined to forsake the democratic enterprise to grab and keep power. Many of those leaders and their acolytes and followers will not hesitate to employ violence to achieve their ends, no matter that it makes the world colder, crueler, more bloody and more unjust.
They are a minority in this country—and I would say with each passing day as the senseless violence in Ukraine persists, they are a smaller and smaller contingent around the world. But both there and here, it’s up to each of us who care about humanity to recognize that democracy is worth fighting for and the forces of savagery will keep expanding if we don’t work to overcome their violence in whatever way we can.
If you are a paid subscriber and would like to join the online book talk with me and other subscribers at 3 p.m. PT today, let me know and I’ll send you a link. If you’re not a paid subscriber, consider becoming one and join the conversation.
“ the Butcher of Moscow” perfect way to describe another Fascist dictator in the mold of Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Amin, Pinochet, Xi, Kim; I’m sure I missed a few.
But to think that a man who lost his son can write so clearly and be committed to Democracy and getting to the truth behind January 6, is awe-inspiring.
Love for this country just oozes from the very being of Jamie Raskin, a true example of what being a patriot means. He recognized the need to "save America" and his involvement and leadership in it probably averted a very dark emotional plunge following the horrific death of his son. God bless all true patriots.