It’s hard to come up with a parallel to the images that emerged from Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Photos of the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention may come closest. Many of those came from rioting in a city park.

This time the rioting was in the U.S. Capitol.

The sight of capitol police standing, guns drawn, behind the barricaded entrance to the U.S. House is stunning. Inches away were people who had broken into the building — and broken windows in the door — staring at the police officers.

This wasn’t how you save democracy. This was how you end it.

Earlier in the day Vice President Mike Pence made it clear that neither he nor anyone else had the constitutional authority to alter the results of the November election. He rejected calls for him to throw out slates of electors for President-elect Joe Biden and install supporters of President Donald Trump in their stead, calling such proposals “entirely antithetical” to the intentions of our nation’s founders.

Within hours Pence was hurriedly being whisked back out of the Capitol to protect him from swarms of rioters. Members of Congress were advised to put on gas masks and they were evacuated from their chambers. Tear gas was fired in the rotunda. One person was apparently shot. National Guard troops were dispatched to the building.

There can be no sympathy given to those who took it upon themselves to smash through barricades and run riot through the halls of the Capitol. Those who did so must be punished to the full extent of the law.

This wasn’t protesting. Had the people stopped at the barricades outside, they would have been fully within their First Amendment rights. The moment they decided to breach those barriers, the moment they decided to disrupt Congress while it was in session, they moved from being protesters to rioters.

They took, in short, the same step taken by some this past summer when they went from being peaceful protesters after the death of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake to rioters when they decided to burn buildings. We condemned rioting then. We can do no differently now.

It is important to recognize there were people at Wednesday’s protests who never took that step. There were people who acted within the law, expressing their concerns in a constitutionally-protected manner. The restraint they showed when others chose to go further is what we should expect of any protests.

The first priority must be the completion of Congress’ constitutional duty to complete the counting of the electoral ballots. It’s one of the fundamental duties the body has, and it must proceed.

Not far behind that lies a second need. We must, as a nation, step back from this brink. How do we de-escalate? How do we return to what had been our tradition, to disagree bitterly, to fight each election tooth and nail, but to then move on to the next challenge?

We have not fallen so far that we are incapable of doing what previous generations simply took for granted. We have not moved so far away from these traditions that Wednesday is inevitably the new standard. The road back may not be easy, but it must be trod.

The peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next is a truly remarkable legacy. It is one of the things that genuinely defines American exceptionalism. And it is for that reason there can be nothing but condemnation for those who took us down a very dark path on Wednesday.

We must be better than this.

We believe we are.

But we must now prove it.

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