Sympathy for Ashli Babbitt
"I can't believe this is reality." I do not know his name or anything else about the young man who shouted this on Wednesday afternoon as he entered the Capitol, his voice combining lunatic urgency with the boredom of someone playing a video game. But one thing I do know is that he is likely still alive.
This is not true of Ashli Babbitt, the unarmed 35-year-old Air Force veteran from San Diego, who was shot by Capitol Police as she attempted to climb through a hole that had been smashed in a door just outside the Speaker's Lobby. Babbitt is dead. It was her death that I and millions of others were unwittingly referring to when we shared reports that firearms had been discharged inside the building just before 3:00 p.m.
Unlike the young philosopher on the steps, Babbitt is someone about whom I know a great deal, thanks to the dubious miracle of social media. Future historians will be able to tell us more about her final hours than they can Lincoln's. We know where she was, with whom, what she was doing and seeing, and exactly what she thought about all of it, almost minute by minute, as she entered upon what would become her funeral march.
Babbitt's husband has referred to her as a great patriot. A brother-in-law has described her as "loyal as well as extremely passionate." A decade ago she was an enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama. After that her political views evolved along a not unfamiliar trajectory, from progressive to libertarian to Trumpist to an initiate into the mysteries of QAnon, that half world of centaurs and aegipans lurking in the darkness, locked in unseen combat with the heavenly host.
In the days and weeks leading up to her death, Babbitt announced on social media that she intended to visit Washington; she tweeted that "the storm" was descending, that the darkness would be "made light," that the crimes and perfidies of the cabal would be revealed and the corrupt order overthrown in some final and unimaginable purgation.
Is this what she saw as she joined with the crowd she referred to as a "mob," whose size she estimated at some three million, gleeful as she walked, telling a video audience that she was happy to be among those with "boots on the ground?" What did she believe in her final moments? Did she, too, ask herself whether this was "real"? Did that smiling, eerily resigned face guess that she was about to die from a police bullet, that her corpse would be shown to a live audience of millions on MSNBC with one of her breasts visible, that she would haunt us like a specter from whatever unknown country deaths are live streamed in?
So much of what we know about Wednesday is inconclusive. As so many of us discovered this summer, piecing together "the facts" from embedded Twitter videos and Reddit posts and the frequently contradictory testimony of eyewitnesses is not likely to yield the sort of sweeping moral conclusions to which we feel entitled. It will be a long time before we know many things (if indeed we ever do): whether Capitol Police allowed protesters to enter the building, and what Babbitt and her comrades thought they were accomplishing, either by accepting such an invitation or by forcing their way.
But I do know that five people died: three other protesters, one of a heart attack, another of a stroke, another of trampling; one officer of the Capitol Police, apparently bludgeoned with a fire extinguisher; and Babbitt. What disordered impulse prevents us from acknowledging her humanity? When her corpse was recovered by the authorities, what talisman was searched for in vain that would have retroactively imbued her with the spirit of innocence that we see effortlessly in the faces of the dead?
These are the questions I ask myself vainly as I look out at a country in which liberals exult in the deaths of protesters and the red-capped hordes scream "F*** the Blue!"
But the digital ashes are hardly worth sifting through. The dead are silent.