Message from Dean Treanor: Yesterday’s Events

January 7, 2021

Dear Members of the Georgetown Law Community,

As events unfolded yesterday, I sent you a brief email to express my horror at the violent attack on democracy we were all witnessing, and to let you know that the students living in Gewirz and the staff on campus were safe. Like many of you, I have been reflecting on yesterday’s events. I would like today to share a few additional thoughts.

Late in the afternoon President-elect Biden said, “At this hour, our democracy is under unprecedented assault, unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times. An assault on the citadel of liberty, the Capitol itself.” The description was powerful and right.

When I am asked to describe Georgetown Law, I often mention how meaningful it is to walk out the First Street entrance and see the Capitol dome. That “citadel of liberty” is very literally part of the physical landscape in which we live, work, and study. Yesterday it was desecrated by a mob, a mob that sought to use violence to stop Congress from doing its job, and to prevent the winner of the presidential election from taking office. An assault like that would be deeply disturbing under any circumstances. But these rioters had been encouraged by the President of the United States, who afterwards told them, “We love you. You’re very special.” This is not a partisan point. As GOP Representative Liz Cheney said, “There’s no question the president formed the mob, the president incited the mob, the president addressed the mob. He lit the flame.” What we witnessed yesterday was an attack on constitutional democracy by the official who, more than any other one person, is entrusted with its protection.

This should disturb every American. But it is perhaps uniquely disturbing to those of us who work in the law. To me, the assault feels personal. As a lawyer at the Office of Legal Counsel, I was proud to be part of an institution tasked with ensuring that the executive acts within the bounds of the law. As an academic, I have been drawn to the values of the founders, and especially their attachment to reason and the search for truth. The founders were far from perfect, and the Constitution they wrote was flawed. But they understood that self-governance presupposes a respect for truth and a faith in reasoned debate, no matter how deep our disagreements. And the long arc of U.S. history shows such faith is not misplaced. We have not yet achieved a perfectly just society. Events of the past year and more have shown us that. But I continue to believe that we can achieve it only through reasoned debate and democratic processes. What we saw yesterday was an attack on the very institutions of democracy, the very tools of self-governance.

It is also impossible to ignore the role of race in all this, most obvious in the Confederate flags that were carried through the Capitol and the white supremacists among the rioters. And it seemed to me, as it did to others, that the rioters were treated very differently from protestors in D.C. in the days and weeks after George Floyd was killed. Finally, seeing so many maskless rioters during such a tragic pandemic was simply shocking.

The violence was additionally concerning because so many members of our community live by campus, close to the epicenter of yesterday’s events. You all have been very much in my thoughts. This is a distressing time for all of us, no matter where we live. I hope you are reaching out to your classmates, students, teachers, and coworkers, checking that they are doing alright and providing support where needed. It has taken enormous effort to maintain our community over the past ten months. That effort is all the more important now.

Everyone at Georgetown Law – students, staff, and faculty – shares in the project of training lawyers and leaders, improving the law, and the broader project of democratic self-governance. Yesterday’s attack on the Capitol not only happened in our neighborhood. It went to the heart of what we do. In the early hours of this morning, Barry C. Black, the Senate chaplain, said on the floor of the Senate, “These tragedies have reminded us that words matter, and that the power of life and death is in the tongue.” Words are the law’s medium. Over the next several weeks, we will be organizing panels and other forms of conversation to help us all comprehend the meaning of what happened yesterday. And of course we will all be engaged in informal conversations to the same end. We will use our words to seek understanding, to heal, to repair the institutions of democracy, and to work toward justice.

Be safe and be well, Bill