Dean Tobin reflects on the riot at the Capitol

I spent eight years working on Capitol Hill. A portion of that time was spent working on the Senate floor. I remember one particular night; I was still sitting on the floor of the Senate at 2am just wanting to go home. But I took a deep breath, looked around, and saw the majesty of the moment. Here I was, a 25-year-old, advising a Senator and sitting on the floor of the Senate. And I was complaining.

I vowed never to take my responsibility—and the import of the place where I worked—for granted again. Only a short time later, I was working late and was the only one in the office. The White House called to inform my boss, who was out of the office at an event, that the United States had begun military operations following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. I spent the evening coordinating communications, relaying information, and thinking about the sacrifice we were asking our soldiers to make.

That is what Congress means to me. It is a symbol of our democracy and the symbol of the people’s power in the United States. It is a sacred place, where our democracy, with its imperfections, addresses the problems of our nation. So today, what I share is from the heart. 

This week, a mob—including many who projected racist and antisemitic imagery—used physical force to try to stop one of our democracy’s most sacred and ministerial events: the counting of the Electoral College votes for President of the United States. The assault on the Capitol must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. The Capitol building, perhaps more than any other structure, represents the importance of our democratic institutions and the rule of law upon which our democracy relies. And, although the Capitol is a symbol, the attack was not merely symbolic. Mobs do not decide our elections; people do.

We also must examine honestly and transparently the law enforcement presence, and response to Wednesday’s assault on the Capitol versus the disproportionate response to the Black Lives Matter and racial justice protests over the summer in Washington, D.C. and throughout the country. This stark difference in treatment highlights the need to explore this double-standard and speaks directly and sadly to the issues we confront as lawyers, law students, and citizens, including the rule of law, racial privilege, disparate policing, and criminal justice. Also, we should take a moment to recognize that actions have consequences and that a Capitol police officer and several participants died as a result of Wednesday’s riot.

Fortunately, the night ended reaffirming our sacred democratic principles, and the votes were properly counted. We learned, however, that our democratic institutions are more fragile than we thought. It is a sign, for all of us pursuing this great profession, that our active involvement in promoting justice is essential for our democracy to thrive.      

As dean of Maryland Carey Law, I am proud that our students will soon be on the front lines protecting our democracy. There has never been a more important time to be in law school.

Dean Donald Tobin

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