NEWFANE — I first grasped the idea of mob mentality in To Kill a Mockingbird. In Mr. Bierman's eighth grade English class, I was loving the novel, for beyond the prejudices Harper Lee aimed powerfully to defuse were even more powerful lessons. These I'd recall when I, in turn, first led my own students through Lee's riches many years later.
Readers may recall the tense, poignant scene when Atticus Finch sits outside the Maycomb, Ala. jailhouse to keep watch over his client, Tom Robinson, an innocent, hardworking Black family man. Jail's the safest place for Tom in the midst of a sham rape trial.
As I remember the scene, the nights worn on; Atticus has been joined by his ever-curious 6-year-old Scout when a line of dusty old vehicles circles up in front of the building. Their cars parked and braked, the men slip out - some armed, others not.
It's dark, and we can't see their faces as they, maybe 15 to 20 men in overalls and denim shirts, amble toward the jail's front stoop - and toward Atticus and Scout.
From behind the dark, one man urges Finch to step aside so the gang can get to Robinson; they intend to take him into custody, presumably to do the worst we can imagine.
Atticus resists; the men close in and repeat the call for access, each time more aggressively, until one face is lit. Scout recognizes Walter Cunningham Sr., the father of one of her classmates.
The Cunninghams are poor, hand-to-mouth farmers. Walter has paid Atticus in crops for legal help around land issues. But Scout, a little champion of egalitarianism, recognizes Cunningham, smiles up broadly at him, and chirps: “Don't you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I'm Jean Louise Finch.”
“I go to school with Walter. He's in my grade, and he does right well. He's a good boy, a real nice boy. We brought him home for dinner one time. Maybe he told you about me, I beat him up one time but he was real nice about it. Tell him hey for me, won't you?”
Cunningham softens at Scout's innocence, and the mob loses its anonymity; it has been humanized. It has a face now and a name.
And thus deflated, the disgruntled mob slinks away.
* * *
Just be careful, I'd caution my students: If you give your voice up to a movement, chances are you'll be standing among heroes and everyday saints in various shapes and sizes.
Even so, before you give up your individual voice to the whole, be sure you believe in the cause, its underpinnings, and its doctrine.
If, on the other hand, you give your voice up to a mob, you're probably standing with the disconnected - some cowardly, many distressed or agitated, often dangerous, generally afraid.
And if you're with a mob, do know that the synergy of its force might go far beyond your own intentions. If you give your voice to that force, it might be tough to find yourself again: Identifying with the mob - feeling safe there - one can dodge oneself and all the work that needs to be done therein.
* * *
Look at the Nazi machine, the Ku Klux Klan, even Jonestown. And look at Jan. 6, 2021.
If we were to canvass individual desecrators, no doubt most would say they'd not do alone what they did with the throng. Ignited by vitriol, they left indelible dirt on an institution America holds most dear.
With names, I'd like to believe that these are not evil people. Nameless, they raged with bravura; but as more and more faces are named, the Capitol mob's destruction seems less and less a triumph.
That Jan. 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany - capital E - may have been lost on many, but that day of the riots was the same day commemorating the discovery of the Christ child by the three wise men from the East. Hmm. Take the lowercase-e epiphany - a breakthrough or sudden realization - and the day was true to the feast.
That breakthrough began a day before with the game- changing election of two new senators in Georgia, but before that victory could even be registered, let alone celebrated, the country turned its head to watch Congress validate a fair and accurate election.
But by early afternoon, our America had plummeted as we watched all hell break loose to stoke the ego of - to demonstrate myopic allegiance to - a large, burger-noshing golden calf.
That was a breakthrough: at least as far as I can see, before systems and societies - and even individuals - can begin to heal, a plunge to rock bottom is inevitable.
And so, perhaps, and not for the first time in history, a mob has, in a sad and twisted way, done us all some good. Slowly but surely, and with the inauguration safely in the bag, we now just might begin to repair, to heal.
Hoping our country can't look much worse than it did by the end of Jan. 6, 2021, America - or many of us - just might feel free to breathe out, to look for the North Star, to heed clear, honest, and worthy beacons.