Among the series of searing images reprinted in the Newseum's compilation of Pulitzer-Prize winning photographs is one from the bicentennial year of 1976, a time when American flags flew proudly in places like Boston, birthplace of so much of our national narrative.
But in this award-winning photo, the flag wasn't unfurled, but unleashed as a lance against a Black man by enraged white youths protesting Boston's busing plan.
The victim, Theodore Landsmark, a Boston businessman clad in a three-piece suit, has his arms held back by the mob as a man charges him with a flagpole.
The photo, according to the compilation, captures "the moment that an American flag, symbol of liberty, is used as a weapon of racial hatred."
Flash forward 44 years. Similar symbolic desecrations of Old Glory took place during last week's attack on the U.S. Capitol. Captured graphically in video and photo form, some in the MAGA mob beat a police officer with an American flag on the Capitol steps (so much for this crowd's frequently incanted "Blue Lives Matter" mantra). In other disturbing images, an invader inside was photographed parading the Confederate flag in a scene not seen even during the Civil War.
The use of such symbols deepened the shock to the conscience many in the nation felt. In fact, symbols, said Harvard Prof. Catherine Brekus, "evoke such strong emotional response because they are fundamental to the way we identify ourselves."
Brekus, chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion who also is associated with Harvard's History and American Studies departments, added in an e-mail interview that, "The Confederate flag and the noose are deeply disturbing because of their close association with racial violence. Some have tried to argue that the Confederate flag is actually a symbol of states' rights, but this ignores its long association with white supremacy and racial violence. The American flag is supposed to stand for patriotism (remember when Trump kissed it?), but too often, it has also been used to sanctify violence against 'enemies' — real or perceived — of the United States. For some of the rioters last week, the enemies were the police."
Amplifying the ample racist symbols were numerous nooses and even a gallows on the hallowed grounds of the People's House. QAnon, white nationalism, antigovernment and anti-Semitic sentiments were also present in banners, flags and T-shirts, including a widely seen one with "Camp Auschwitz" disgracefully emblazoned on it.
"Symbols generate meaning," said Ronald Greene, a professor of political rhetoric at the University of Minnesota. And no one, Greene said, "sees a symbol out of a particular historical context."
This particular historical context is, well, one for the history books. Describing the recent weeks' whirlwind as seminal events might not even do it justice. Just in a fortnight, after all, the Electoral College recorded its votes following a free and fair but falsely disputed presidential election; an insurrection interrupted but did not stop Congress from certifying those results (with notable, notorious exceptions of 139 Republican representatives and eight GOP senators); and the U.S. House impeached President Donald Trump for the second time for what it termed "incitement of insurrection."
"The impeachment process is symbolic of the House rejecting the rhetoric of the president," Greene said. "Symbolic of a desire to say, 'that kind of talk is excluded.' "
Some of the symbols that rubbed so raw used to be excluded, too, like the Confederate flag, a uniquely American artifact. But Greene said that all societies are "organized by core symbols that express what the community values as important." This includes the Capitol itself, which Brekus said was "the global symbol of American democracy."
It's not just important, but imperative that unifying symbols replace the divisive ones.
"A nation-state falls apart when it loses its ability to have a shared meaning about its core symbols," Greene said.
Shared meaning can still be found at the Capitol, especially at its next consequential event: Wednesday's inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
"Biden is intent on taking his oath on the steps of the Capitol because he understands its symbolic power," Brekus said. "He is determined to reclaim the Capitol from those who claimed, in the midst of erecting nooses and wreaking violence against the police, to be America's truest patriots."
The symbolism of the inauguration, Greene said, "is to pull us all together again. We are all supposed to experience the peaceful transition of power and the reset of our democratic debate."
The democratic debate between Democrats and Republicans will indeed reset, and it just may be conducted on a more profound level than the debased debate that went before. Because beyond the elected representatives who faced an actual life-or-death event last week, democracy itself faced an existential crisis.
"The rhetorical challenge," concluded Greene, "is not a false unity but a real honest discussion and dialogue in America about what our core agreements are, about the meaning of being an American, about the meaning of democracy, the meaning of our flag, the meaning of our Capitol."
Photojournalists will try to convey some of that meaning next week, just as they intrepidly depicted the despicable attack on the Capitol (and at times, themselves) that becomes the coda to the tumult of the Trump era. Some of these images may even compete for the Pulitzer Prize itself, including iconic photographs of crazed crowds storming the Capitol; a hazy, teargassed fog eerily enveloping it afterward; and troops bivouacking in the Capitol's hallways.
But another, less dramatic yet more hopeful image endures: Five Black soldiers, among the throngs of troops in Statuary Hall, posing in front of a statue of Rosa Parks. The men in uniform, and the woman they're honoring, all project a quiet dignity amid these noisy, undignified times.
Figurative and literal good soldiers, the five are appropriately masked, so their mouths are obscured.
But their eyes are smiling.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.