The 2 pressing questions from the Assembly circus

By any measure, the seemingly never-ending stream of vitriol at the Anchorage Assembly’s mask mandate debate over the past week was a depressing spectacle. If you showed up in person or tuned in to the livestream Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday evening, you were witness to an hours-long hatefest that displayed just how degraded our politics has become, even at the local level. After watching the proceedings for any length of time, two questions were sure to come to mind: “How did we come to this?” and “Can it possibly get worse?”

The discourse at the meeting was as ugly as this city has seen. Sprinkled in among the many conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” that testifiers brought forth were threats — some directed at Assembly members, some at others in the audience who disagreed. The threats ranged from vague — of the “you’ll see what happens if you pass this” variety — to unsettlingly specific and violent, such as the person who said it was “time to get out the gallows” for the Assembly. One person Thursday referred to where we stand now as “1776,″ a reference to the beginning of the American Revolution that also echoed the far-right rhetoric of those who participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C. On Wednesday, several people wore yellow Star of David badges, complete with mock Hebrew, meant to evoke those that Jews were forced to wear by Nazis before and during the Holocaust — a false equivalency that gravely minimized the magnitude of that atrocity. Members of the public swore, shouted slurs at Assembly members and belittled other attendees. It was, in plain terms, a mob.

Worst of all, amid the chaos, police discovered a man was carrying a concealed handgun — during his arrest Wednesday for disorderly conduct. It doesn’t take a genius to understand why mixing deadly weapons, a volatile crowd and a divisive argument is a terrible idea. So, in answer to the second question — can it get worse? — the answer is yes, in ways too terrible to contemplate. And the fact that’s a realistic concern is a sad statement about where we are.

As to how we got here, there are both complex and surprisingly simple reasons. The complex ones have to do with a host of external factors — cable news networks and online blogs in the business of confirming biases rather than challenging them. Social media algorithms that increasingly segregate us into siloed echo chambers. A trickle-down corrosion of our politics from the national to the local level, in which politicians and partisans are increasingly willing to tear down the guardrails of civility and civic-mindedness to score wins and, worse, rig the rules of our system.

The simple reasons are the ones that are harder to countenance. We’ve let our political views become inextricable from our views of ourselves, and in doing so, we’ve chosen to forget that we’re all in this together. Rather than find ways to work out our differences, many of us have become obsessed with getting our way at all costs, regardless of who it hurts — including ourselves.

There are strong moral reasons why the behavior exhibited at the Assembly meetings in the past week should be off-limits. But there are practical, pragmatic ones too. Those who came to testify against the mask mandate said they stood for liberty and American values, but the record shows the opposite. They came to yell, belittle, grandstand and disrupt. They shouted down those who disagreed, and made threats toward elected officials. That’s not the democratic process, that’s anarchy and thuggery. The crowd meant to protest those who they saw as wanting to take away their rights — and in practice, they did so by taking away others’ rights to be heard.

You can’t preserve liberty by enforcing your own will through bullying tactics, making those who stand against you fear for their safety. That has another name: tyranny. And it’s something we all ought to be able to stand against.