“My fellow Americans” – President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first president to use that phrase in his inauguration speech of 1933. It was intended to serve as a reminder to all of us that no matter how divided we may be on particular issues or in troubled times that we are all Americans, part of the American Experiment.
Like many of us in recent times I have begun to wonder if this is still true. Are we all still Americans, still tied together by our common beliefs and of the vision of creating a “more perfect union?” I have begun to doubt.
Today I watched the January 6th hearing and, to my surprise, I found hope in the testimony of two men who, until recently, were on the opposite side of an ideological fence from me: Stephen Ayres, a man who has already pleaded guilty to one charge of disorderly conduct (he faced a number of additional and more serious charges for breaking into the Capitol) and Jason Van Tatenhove, a man who had served as a spokesperson for the Oath Keepers.
How and why did I find inspiration in the statements of these two men? The answer is simple – because they are not the same men that they were. Both of them did things that they now regret; but beyond regret, they both took steps to change. Mr. Ayres was motivated by what he thought to be true at the time. He got what he believed to be the facts from social media, he believed the Big Lie. Since January 6th, he has learned that he was misled, that he believed things that were simply not true. He has taken the step to say the words that may be the most difficult for any of us to say: “I was wrong.” But beyond that, he has taken steps to undo the damage that he has caused.
Jason Van Tatenhove provides a different perspective. Even during the time that he was with the Oath Keepers there were things that he simply would not do. As an American, there were lines that he would not cross, despite the pressures that were brought to bear. He would leave the organization and testified that he had “purged my life of that world years ago.”
Why do I feel a kinship with these men? I didn’t storm the Capitol, I was never part of the Oath Keepers (or the Patriot Front, or the Proud Boys, or any similar group.) But I have made my share of mistakes, some pretty dreadful. And like my fellow Americans above, I have tried my best to correct them.
This country has been through a lot. A significant portion of the population opposed the American Revolution, wanted to stay loyal to England. We fought a bloody and divisive Civil War. In the 1960s, we faced an unpopular war abroad, and civil unrest at home. Yet we have always been able to come together and I have confidence that we will yet again.
The secret to recovery, to redemption, is not to focus on what we were or even what we are now, but to look ahead and to dream of what we could become. If you are part of an extremist group and ready to make a positive change, it can be difficult to do on your own. That is why there are organizations such as Beyond Barriers where people who have been in your same situation can help you to change, to find that positive future. It won’t be easy, nothing worth achieving ever is, but you don’t have to make this journey alone.
Thank you for listening, my fellow Americans.
© 2022 Larry Kuperman