Inside NACDL: Reflections on a Year of Challenge

Not many people could have imagined that the U.S. Capitol would come under assault. No one thought 500,000 people would die from the coronavirus. Yet there is real hope.

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Editor’s Note: To commemorate the passage of one year since the advent of the pandemic, a year of challenge like few in the nation’s history, NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer has adapted an excerpt from his recent report to the Board of Directors.

The United States of America has been transformed. It is not and never will be what it once was. Even as the nation averted one cataclysm, another one rages on. A pervasive sense of vulnerability that was always borne by some in American society is now universal. Perhaps the shared traumatic experiences of the past year can form the basis for a renewed sense of common purpose and resolve to address injustice and inequality as never before in our history.

The Insurrection

The notion of the government under domestic attack or of a mob storming the seat of government to overturn a democratic election was unthinkable in the minds of Americans for most of the past two centuries. Those kinds of things happen elsewhere: in small, developing countries, in countries ruled by tyrants or warlords, in places where democratic self-governance never took root. All that changed on Jan. 6, 2021. Now we know that even here, in the United States of America, forces can be unleashed that can kill democracy in the blink of an eye. This time democracy did prevail, but the near miss will forever change the way we view political discourse in this country. Time will tell whether the searing images of that fateful day and the equally eerie images of the nation’s capital under military occupation for weeks thereafter will strengthen the national resolve to preserve democracy or whether it is a harbinger of darker days to come. And reflections upon what likely would have happened had the mob looked different ineluctably underscore the deep division and inequality that remain a fabric of American society.

The Senate’s acquittal of Donald J. Trump, or more importantly, the failure of a major political party to denounce unconditionally and universally those who peddle hate and division and thrive on bizarre fantasies spun by fact-free fringe zealots means that the struggle to save constitutional democracy is far from over. All Americans, but especially those of us who wield the Constitution and the Bill of Rights every single day in the defense and protection of individual clients must be in the forefront in the effort to defend democracy. To prevail, to restore informed discourse, to safeguard the franchise, the free exercise of which so enrages the tyrant, we must confront once and for all the legacy of racial animus that flows directly from the institution of slavery through Black Codes to segregation and directly to the era of mass incarceration and xenophobia.

As I reflect upon the events of the past year, all of them, particularly the social unrest in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and other similar atrocities, I cannot help but conclude that it was the depth and breadth of the demands for justice that provoked the forces of darkness to literally seek to overthrow the government. Yet, as much as there is a risk that the nation can descend further into the abyss, there is an equal chance that Jan. 6, 2021, will mark the day the fever broke. Individual acts of courage held the mob at bay, the Congress resumed the count, the will of the people was honored, and two weeks later the democratically elected president was inaugurated. After a perilously close call, American democracy has another chance, just as it did after the Civil War. Perhaps this time, we will get it right. Perhaps this time, we will truly confront the legacy of injustice and rectify it. Perhaps this time, we will tackle the great task remaining before us as described by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg and ensure that the nation shall have a new birth of freedom. Or perhaps not.

The Pandemic

Even as the nation deals with the aftermath of the January 6 cataclysm, it still confronts the scourge of COVID-19 and the national failure to prepare for or react prudently and cohesively to the virulent pandemic. Numbers are so revealing and can be so startling. In preparing this reflection, I have reviewed each of the reports I submitted to NACDL’s Board of Directors since the advent of the pandemic. As we approached the Spring 2020 Board meeting, the first virtual meeting in NACDL’s history, I noted that when we gathered the death toll would exceed 58,000, the same grim number of American lives lost in Vietnam. For those who lived through that agonizing era, the notion that we could exceed the number of deaths that occurred over the seemingly endless years of the Vietnam War in less than three months was unthinkable.

Three months later when we gathered for the Annual Meeting, the death toll was approximately 170,000 — a nearly three-fold increase. By the Fall Meeting, 210,000 of our fellow countrymen and countrywomen had died. And now, as I write this report, it is very likely that when we meet on Feb. 27, 2021, the death toll will have reached 500,000 — half a million lives lost in one year. Nearly 300,000 just since NACDL’s last meeting. I doubt that there is even one among us who has not lost a family member, friend, neighbor, or close acquaintance to this deadly disease.

And just as most of us could never, ever imagine the U.S. Capitol under assault, who among us could have ever conceived that this country would be the most afflicted by a worldwide health crisis? How is it possible that the richest, most technologically advanced nation would suffer the highest infection and death rates in the world? Who could have predicted the prevalence of a suicidal denialism that turned the nation into pro- and anti-maskers? How can a country that has led the world in innovation for more than a century turn its back on science, even as portable refrigeration trucks are rushed to hot spots to provide temporary storage for an overflow of cadavers?

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A cataclysm indeed.

We should not deceive ourselves. The trauma of this event will remain with every single one of us for as long as we walk on this planet. For those who survive the pandemic of 2020-21, perhaps this is the lesson we needed to recognize that neither national borders nor aggregation of wealth can save us. It cannot save us from disease, from climate change, from injustice, or from hatred. When we look at how the virus impacted various segments of the U.S. population, disproportionately ravaging minority communities, perhaps we can finally reach a national consensus that freeing the slaves and ending de jure segregation did not end the legacy of enslavement and discrimination. The United States remains a fractured society and these twin cataclysms prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

This is indeed a nation transformed. We have endured a collective crucible. Hopefully, we will emerge with a renewed appreciation for the fragility of democracy, a reinvigorated determination to repair and reform injustice, and a recognition that nature is as powerful as any weapon of mass destruction. A tiny microbe can be as deadly as a riotous mob; an unresolved sense of injustice can infiltrate society as swiftly and lethally as a novel virus.

The Future

Yet, as I write this, there is some real hope. Hope like we have not seen since we gathered in February 2020 in San Diego. Democracy prevailed. A new administration that professes a commitment to healing and social justice is taking shape. And science is coming to the rescue. Multiple vaccines are now available, and distribution is picking up. Many have been vaccinated, and barring the emergence of an entirely resistant variant of the COVID 19 coronavirus, by summer the pandemic will have abated. And maybe, just maybe, by the time the NACDL family is scheduled to gather for its Annual Meeting, we will be able to do so, not on computer screens, but in person where we can rekindle the bonds of friendship and camaraderie with handshakes and hugs.

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About the Author

Norman L. Reimer is NACDL’s Executive Director and Publisher of The Champion.

Norman L. Reimer
Washington, DC