Cry, the beloved country.

There have been multiple American moments of great drama since World War II. Movements to extend rights to minorities, women, the disabled and gays. Assassinations, terrorist attacks and anti-war protests.

But not once - not even when Soviet missiles were being installed 90 miles from American shores more than a half-century ago - have the democratic values that the Book of Matthew described as "the light of the world" been in jeopardy.

Not once, until this month.

Not for a moment - not even during the Richard Nixon-era controversies - was there a physical assault on the institutions of democracy.

The siege of the Capitol was a stain on the country, undermining its moral authority abroad, raising questions at home about the "domestic tranquility" cited in the preamble of the Constitution.

Incited by the leader of the world's greatest democracy, the marchers stormed up a boulevard called Constitution Avenue. A rioter raced through the Capitol with the flag of the Confederacy, which was a domestic rebellion against the Union. A leader who portrayed himself as an avatar of law and order prompted the breaking of the law and violent disorder.

Duly elected representatives of the people were told to hide under their desks - the very advice schoolchildren during the chilliest days of the Cold War were given to save themselves in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack. The president's greatest defender, and his frequent surrogate, Pence, broke with his patron at the moment when the president needed his support more than at any time in the last four years.

Then there was the irony that the sanctity of elections, and the sterility of the vice-presidential role, had been sealed in history by the unlikely figure of Vice President Nixon, who was defeated by John F. Kennedy. From the Senate rostrum, Nixon acknowledged the Kennedy victory, said the Electoral College verdict provided an "eloquent example of the stability of our constitutional system" and spoke of American's tradition of "respecting and honoring institutions of self-government."

But of all the ironies of a date of infamy, this may be the greatest:

Lawmakers who for years could not bring themselves to work together, have lunch together, play Capitol gymnasium basketball together, instead huddled together in disbelief and in fear. Then they gathered together to confirm the election of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the next president.

It was the sort of moment that, in Great Britain during the World War II blitz, forged a sense of national unity as Londoners huddled together in Tube stations as the bombs exploded above ground.

That may affect lawmakers, but it may not have the same effect on the Trump loyalists, who very likely will take a different message from Wednesday's events.

"Americans are better than this," said Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska. "Americans aren't nihilists. Americans aren't arsonists. Americans aren't French revolutionaries taking to the barricades."

Today the name Fisher Ames (1758-1808) is largely forgotten. He was a Massachusetts congressman and a leading voice of the Federalist Party. Two weeks after the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated following his defeat of the Federalist John Adams, Ames wrote this to Theodore Dwight, a leading Federalist who was the brother of a Yale president, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards and a cousin of Aaron Burr, the newly installed vice president:

"Party is an association of honest men, for honest purposes, and, when the State falls into bad hands, is the only efficient defence; a champion who never flinches, a watchman who never sleeps ... It would be wrong to assail the new administration with invective. Even when bad measures occur, much temperance will be requisite. To encourage Mr. Jefferson to act right, and to aid him against his violent jacobin adherents, we must make it manifest that we act on principle."

The day before I was born, a group of Puerto Rican nationalists entered the House visitors' gallery, chanted "Viva Puerto Rico libre!" and opened fire, wounding five House members. Like so many of my generation - and especially those of us in the news media - I have a collection of newspaper front pages, especially the one from my birthdate. For two thirds of a century I have kept a replica of the cover of that New York Herald-Tribune newspaper, and when I became a congressional correspondent many years ago, I never forgot what happened in the chamber I covered.

Cry, the beloved country.

Email comments to briank@northwestsignal.net

I started at the Northwest Signal in 1994 and became editor in 2004. I graduated from Bowling Green State University in 1994.

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