I watched the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol live on television. It was around 2 a.m., and my dad and I had sat down to watch what we thought would be the certification of Biden’s electoral college victory. I didn’t really understand the process, so my dad explained it to me as we watched.
As the night began, Nancy Pelosi asked people to get off the floor because of COVID-19 restrictions. A senator then called a point of information and asked very sassily how he was expected to raise further questions if he wasn’t allowed to get onto the floor. Mike Pence asked him to sit down and shut up in diplomatic language. “This is funny,” I thought.
The night got increasingly less funny. Pro-Trump protesters broke through the barriers the police had put up and entered the Capitol. I watched on live television as they broke windows and stole Nancy Pelosi’s mail. My dad shared photos of the chaos inside the Capitol from Twitter on our family WhatsApp group. “I should write about this,” I texted. “Don’t you dare,” my parents spoke in unison.
The notion that international students are not meant to comment on American politics has followed me for a long time. It began when a Palestinian student was barred from entering the United States over something that one of his friends had put on Facebook in 2019. Subsequently, the United States began to require visa applicants to provide their social media information as part of their applications.
Back when I was applying to colleges, our high school counselors advised us to clean out our social media of anything that might seem even slightly anti-American. “You’re just really vocal these days,” they said. “You wouldn’t want it getting taken the wrong way.”
The violence at the Capitol, therefore, was out of bounds. I couldn’t risk having a border officer taking offense and canceling my visa. It could mean the end of the American education that everyone around me is so desperate for me to have.
What is it about America that is so inviting, yet so closed off? You can enjoy American freedoms, but not too much. You can talk about America, but only if you are a citizen. What will you do if you are deported? How will your opinions help you?
Monitoring immigrants’ social media is inherently un-American. America, for a long time, was considered to be the country for immigrants. You could come in search of economic opportunities and find a better life.
But being told not to talk about the Capitol reminded me of all the things that America hides under the facade of being a good place for immigrants. The truth is, we have always known that this is what America is. A place so centered on the individual that it regularly turns to extremism, to violence, for the sake of personal fulfillment. That same sense of equality we love so much — you can be anything, believe anything in America — is eventually what eats us alive. It is eventually what we see at the steps of the U.S. Capitol, threatening a coup like the ones we see at home.
What is considered un-American, therefore, is more American than you think. Violence and extremism fester in American society under the guise of patriotism. “American-ness” is a standard that everyone in the world attempts to reach. The insurrection at the Capitol shows that even America fails to reach this standard.
Americans have to start thinking long and hard about what it means to be American. As the Capitol insurrection showed, there is a wrong way. We are at a crossroads: Do we strive for these ideals that we have failed to reach for the past 200 years, or do we abandon them?
One important step is adjusting our attitudes toward immigrants. Do we welcome them with open arms, knowing they will bring new ideas and cultures, or do we view them with suspicion? The way we treat their social media and public opinion is an important start.
AWUOR ONGURU is a first year in Berkeley College. Her column, titled ‘The Wild West,’ runs every other Tuesday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.