I gave the ball of dough a final pat, washed my hands, reached for my phone. My husband was nearby, playing with the dog. It was January 6th—Congress was tallying Electoral College votes, but our TV was turned off. I didn’t care to watch members of Congress object to certain votes, from certain states, making claims of election fraud without any evidence. I spent most of my working life teaching freshman composition. Wherever I taught—community college, private school, or university—even the freshest freshman-comp student knew better than to advance or accept unsupported claims. It’s a good life skill. You can ascertain a truth through evidence, but acting on feelings without proof is a way to get duped. Evaluating electoral counts certified by the states wasn’t Congress’s constitutionally assigned task, nor was it their right. I don’t believe that people in Congress are fools, so I had to conclude that something disingenuous was happening—something for show. I wanted to keep tabs on what was happening at the Capitol, but not get too preoccupied. So the TV was off and I was making an apple pie. As American as apple pie. It seemed symbolically right, on such a significant day in our national election cycle. But before the pie was in the oven, I was calling it my Insurrection Apple Pie.
As the crust waited, I checked Facebook. At the top of my newsfeed was a one-sentence post from a former colleague, who essentially said, Turn on your TV. He’s a writer—he “gets” tone, and the tone of his post told me to stop what I was doing. So I did. Without speaking, I picked up the remote and turned the TV on. Bruce stopped his tussling with the dog to see what I was doing. I watched his face and the screen at the same time. Comprehension moved slowly across his features as the images on the screen registered. People—no, rioters—were swarming the Capitol building. Some were violently engaged with an amazingly small number of Capitol police officers. Where, I thought, are the police? Rioters were streaming into the building through doors and broken windows.
A sort of horror descended. In the midst of a pandemic, before my very eyes, our democracy was under attack. Despite everything, I had to finish working on the pie. As I rolled the bottom crust—turning the rolling pin this way, and then that, feeling and hearing the thud of the wooden roller against the countertop—a thought looped in my head. Americans, attacking Americans. I shaped the crust into the pie pan and turned to peeling apples. The sweet, sharp smell of the Braeburn apple rose up, as images of rioters trying to stop the vote count rolled across the TV screen. The rage on their faces made me afraid for the people who worked inside the Capitol building—the Capitol police, and members of Congress and their staff. I didn’t know that there were also family members present. I knew that, finding themselves in such danger, they must be frightened out of their wits.
I sliced the apples and coated them with sugar and spices, one eye on my task, the other on the TV. I spooned the apples into the crust and dotted them with butter. Finally, I rolled and placed the top crust and slipped the pie into the oven—so distracted, I forgot to put foil around the pinched edge to prevent its over-browning. The whole time I’d been putting the pie together, a series of questions had scrolled through my head: Who are these people? What brought them to this? And what can—what should—be done about it?
These were hardly new questions for me. I finished grad school in May of 1989, earning a degree in literature and creative writing. That summer, I taught basic writing in a study-abroad program for American and Canadian high school students, housed at Oxford and Cambridge universities in England. I’d just done a successful job search. As I’d set out on the trip abroad, I was looking forward to a new job in August, and to a new life, but I was also hoping nothing catastrophic would prevent it.
Why was I worried? Because of horrifying world events.
The Lockerbie bombing had happened about six months earlier. Remember? Just before Christmas, a transatlantic flight from Heathrow Airport in London to New York City had been blown up by a bomb at 30,000 feet. It exploded over Scotland. Everyone on board died, and debris rained down, a large section of the plane landing in the town of Lockerbie. A Libyan intelligence officer was later identified and convicted.
I was nervous but optimistic about braving a significantly scarier world. So when the study-abroad program ended, I took a trip across the English Channel by ferry on my way to Germany. I remember the uneasy sensations I felt when, on the way to board the ferry, I was funneled with other travelers through a narrowing series of gates and hallways, like cattle through metal chutes, everyone dragging their luggage. I was glad I had taken only a backpack and left my suitcase with English friends. At the end of that long walk through the chutes, we all stood in a circle in a large empty room, where dogs were brought in to sniff both our belongings and us. I had been warned to expect it by my friends. Still, it was upsetting. Were they looking for drugs? I didn’t ask. For bombs? I hoped not.
I spent only a few days in Germany—stayed with a friend, shared a table with strangers (as they do there) in a tavern, took a day trip to Zurich. When I returned to England and was finally at Heathrow, waiting to board the flight to New York, I couldn’t stop thinking about Lockerbie. This was where that fateful flight had taken off. As I waited, I watched my fellow passengers. We all seemed nervous, likely thinking about terrorists and our mortality. I was sure others were having unspoken conversations with the Lord, as I was. We got home to JFK safely (and I have never been so glad to feel a plane’s wheels touch down). But something did happen on that flight. As nervous as I’d been, and as frightening as the incident was, what happened bothered me. It still does.
This poem I wrote soon after tells the story. Its title, from Greek, is an ancient Christian prayer: Lord, have mercy.
* * *
The woman one row back
called the flight attendant:
A man, she said, an Oriental man,
put a package into the overhead
bin and disappeared.
We were already backing
from the jetway, thinking
of Lockerbie. Our
hostess blanched, then
The weight of her career was
plain. A man—an Oriental
man. She ran forward, halted
the plane. They found him
elsewhere, rows away, sleeping
in a seat not his, roomier.
When they woke him,
surprise trailed its wake
across his face. An
Oriental man. The woman’s voice
had a tone: He’s foreign.
He carries bombs
onto planes. He’d feed one
to a child for breakfast.
The flight attendant
said, You did the right thing.
Please return your seat
backs and tray tables
to their upright and locked
* * *
I’ve been fortunate. There has been only one time in my life when panic absolutely took away my ability to think. Bruce and I were living in a 1960s-era rambler. The windows were the sort that push out from the bottom when they’re opened. I was in the kitchen—he was out doing yard work. I heard him turn the hose on, which we kept curled on the ground behind some bushes next to the house, and then there was a sound like a semi had hit the house. I ran to the door just as Bruce stumbled up the steps from the yard. Blood was running in an awful stream down his face and into his eyes. To cool himself, he’d bent over to run water from the hose over his head. When he’d straightened up, his head hit the sharp corner of the window. The gash carved into his scalp was bleeding abundantly and looked worse than it was. My hands literally shook as I tried to think what to do. Damp cloth? Bandages? ER? I was mentally paralyzed.
For a few minutes on that plane at Heathrow, overhearing the conversation between the woman behind me and the flight attendant, I felt something akin to that paralysis and fear. Was I about to die at the hands of an anonymous stranger? It gave me a foretaste of what people in the Twin Towers would feel on 9/11, of what people at the U.S. Capitol would experience while I made pie on January 6th. Still, I saw the look on that “Oriental” man’s face as he was awakened, and as scared as I’d been, I felt keenly the humiliation and indignation he must be feeling.
The insult unjustly visited on him had been terror-inspired. I understood that, personally. I had felt the inescapable fear—even as I understood that assumptions were being made about the color of the man’s skin. I look ahead to a day when we’ll have given up preconceptions about race. Acknowledging that we have a ways to go before we reach that day, we’re still left with the question: What should be done about terrorists? And assuming we’ve not come to the point where we’re going to declare overthrow of the U.S. government to be as American as apple pie, what can be done about insurrectionists? Do we want to do nothing—let homegrown terrorism spread, and see life in the U.S. become a long, nervous walk down a series of narrowing metal chutes?
I’ve lived long enough, have collected enough evidence through experience, to conclude a few things. The first is that the impulse to violence has no particular skin color. It has no single national, ethnic, or religious identity, and it’s inconsistent and illogical. A terrorist or insurrectionist can carry, for example, both a cross and an AK47. Resorting to violence between perceived groups—like the Lockerbie bomber did—or opting for violent insurrection within a group—like what happened at the Capitol—is, I believe, at its root a moral and character failure. I see it to be the place of family, church, and school to counter that, especially early in life.
Whatever our influences, of course, we humans are creatures of choice and will, choices bringing reward or consequences. As the people of a democratic society, we need to say often and out loud that, in this country, actions like what we saw at the Capitol are illegal and won’t be tolerated. More than that, we need to demand that laws be passed that specifically outlaw homegrown (domestic) terrorism. I was recently shocked to learn that we have no laws under which to prosecute domestic terrorism.
We do ourselves no favor if we look the other way as our democratic institutions fail to stop miscreants and scofflaws, no matter who the offender is—a neighbor down the street, a member of Congress, or even the President. This is not a matter of political party affiliation. Do we, or do we not, hold to the idea that no one is above the law? The word miscreant, by the way, derives from Old French for disbelieve. When I discovered that fact, having gone to a dictionary, it struck me as sadly appropriate, given that we’re plagued now by wild conspiracy theories and notions of “alternate facts.”
Back to my Insurrection Apple Pie. By the time, that evening, I’d whipped the cream and taken my first bite, there was a sour taste in my mouth that even the sugary goodness on my plate couldn’t overcome. According to news sources, our outgoing President, an accidental master of irony, had by then tweeted, “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!” When Congress later reconvened—light at the end of a dismal day—many members of the Senate and House persisted in their pre-announced objections. In the face of a catastrophe that shouldn’t have happened, on a day when personal reflection and examination were in order, they instead hunkered down—over votes that had been recounted multiple times and affirmed by government agencies and the courts. I felt disgust as I listened to senators make their empty and unsupported claims, and I went to bed.
I would certainly remember this day forever.