"It just sucks when you're fighting with your own head.”
“Kill him with his own gun!”
“We’re going in the wrong direction.”
Simone Biles, the G.O.A.T. of gymnasts worldwide, and arguably America’s biggest Olympic star ever, winner of 35 medals during her career, went to Tokyo this year with the highest of expectations thrust on her shoulders. She is all that is good about the U.S. of A.
As America straddles a precarious balance beam, Biles was sent abroad to provide a bit of heroism, patriotism, and a moment of evenness. She would stand atop the Olympic podium, countless times no doubt, a Black American woman triumphant.
Biles would be a temporary respite to America’s ongoing ugly dismounts. Yet, Biles had wounds of her own. Citing her mental health, she shockingly withdrew from the team and individual Olympic competitions. Earlier this week, she hinted about her unexpected departure when she wrote in a social media post that she felt the weight of the world on her shoulders.
"Whenever you get in a high stress situation, you kind of freak out," the 24-year-old told reporters after she withdrew. "I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being."
Biles deserves all the time she needs, and then some. While she’s been to the Olympics many times before, and knows what it’s like to compete, there is no practice for mental health. The mind can be a cruel dark place. "It just sucks when you're fighting with your own head,” Biles correctly observed.
While Biles was speaking, on the other side of the world, four U.S. Capitol Police officers were vividly testifying in front of the House Select Committee about the events of January 6. They spoke about their own struggles and mental anguish, and the deafening rattling that continues to ring loudly in their heads from that perfidious day.
Sergeant Aquilino Gonel, an Iraq war veteran said that day was worse than anything he experienced in combat. More personally, he couldn’t accept a hug from his wife when he returned home from work after 4 a.m. on January 7th because his uniform was covered with chemicals. That, understandably, after all he had been through, made him cry. It made the members of the committee cry. It would make anyone cry.
He was beaten with a flagpole. "They called us traitors. They beat us. They dragged us," he said through tears. "And I could hear them, 'We're going to shoot you. We're going to kill you. You're choosing your paycheck over the country. You're a disgrace. You're a traitor.' I thought I was going to lose my life."
Daniel Hodges was the officer whose face was shown pressed hard in a makeshift door vice in that unbearable, almost unwatchable video that has been played countless times on television. The angry insurrectionists worked to crush his head physically, and he recalled seeing nothing but a proliferation of Trump flags, confederate flags around him. While he screamed for help, in response he heard repeated yells of “Four more years,” and “Trump sent us" hurtled at this smashed face.
Hodges said that the pro-Trump mob was made up of "overwhelmingly white males" and said he was treated differently than his non-white fellow officers. "Some of them would try to, try to recruit me," he told the committee. "One of them came up to me and said, 'Are you my brother?'"
Officer Harry Dunn, who is Black, recounted how rioters called him and other officers racial slurs, and that the racist overtones of the insurrectionists were pronounced, forever hurtful, and made him ashamed.
Dunn said he keeps politics out of his job, but made the fatal mistake of telling the criminals who were trying to accost him that he didn’t vote for Trump. "Well, I voted for Joe Biden," Dunn tried to reason with the unreasonable crowd in front of him. "Does my vote not count? Am I nobody?"
From there, the ugliness of the hate and bigotry spewed. "You hear that, guys, this n***** voted for Joe Biden!" a woman in a pink MAGA shirt screeched. "Boo! F****** n*****!" the crowd of about 20 bellowed back, Dunn recalled.
During his testimony, he said that he and the other officers in the force represented what was good about America. What he saw that day embodied the antithesis. "I became very emotional and began yelling, 'How the blank could something like this happen? Is this America?'" Dunn said.
And Officer Michael Fanone was even more blunt. He asked the committee to investigate the organizing of Donald Trump's "Stop the Steal" rally and the "violent political rhetoric" leading up to and during the event. “The time, the place, and the circumstances of that rally, that rhetoric…leads in the direction of our [Trump] and members of Congress.”
That rhetoric included Fanone hearing chants of "kill him with his own gun." "I can still hear those words in my head today," Fanone said.
Fanone showed his fury at the many Republican lawmakers and others who are trying to whitewash the events of January 6 and are ignoring pleas from law enforcement to investigate the attack. "The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful," Fanone said, pounding his hand on the table.
The hearing was excruciatingly painful to watch. And if it was painful to us, imagine how agonizing it was to the four of them retelling their horror stories. They testified on behalf of the hundreds of other Capitol Hill police officers who are still fighting, and hearing, that battle in their own heads, like Fanone, to this day. And most likely forever.
And while Biles was bowing out, and the police officers were crying out, the Center for Disease Control threw out their no-mask mandates for vaccinated people. The CDC is urging vaccinated people in high-risk areas, which is starting to be just about everywhere again, to mask up indoors. Further, the CDC now believes that vaccinated people can transmit the virus.
And as we are all aware, when COVID-19 cases start to dramatically rise as they are now, they will be followed by equally dramatic escalations of hospitalizations and deaths. It wasn’t so long ago, if you were vaccinated, you felt pretty safe because so-called “breakthrough” infections were so rare. But those cases are climbing too. Who among us is vaccinated and isn’t debating, in their own heads, whether they should wear a mask or not? Or more urgently, whether they feel safe – or not?
This was supposed to be the summer of our return to safety and to normalcy, but that’s being radically shut down. Over the weekend, Dr. Tony Fauci told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “We’re going in the wrong direction.” He also said that this new wave was a surge of the unvaccinated.
And unvaccinated people are starting to mess with the heads of vaccinated people. A New York Times story this week said that as virus cases rise, another contagion spreads among the vaccinated; anger towards the unvaccinated. And it’s no secret, in fact it’s been proven by data, that the unvaccinated are overwhelmingly Trump supporters.
Trump and his ilk are still messing with our heads, at least those of us who have good heads on our shoulders. The collateral damage from those four years of that hateful and hapless administration continues to mount, continues to flourish, and continues to weigh heavily on all of our minds. The secrets of January 6, 2021 and the implications of that day, just like December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001 will haunt us forever.
Will clearer heads ever prevail? Will anyone hear the pleas of the officers? If no one is held accountable for January 6, 2021, will January 6, 2025 see a repeat of the same bloodshed and violence? Will America’s strong-minded democracy end up beheaded?
The pandemic, at least here in the U.S., will likely continue to roll on and on. If they are anything, Trump supporters are masters of being belligerent and unrelenting. The likelihood that they will all start using their heads, and yield to taking vaccines, is a sure-fire losing bet. Like Trump, they vow never to be wrong.
Will their inflated and ill-conceived sense of infallibility send us deeper into that wrong direction? Will their refusal to mask up and get the shot allow the Delta variant and other ruinous variants to spread like an out of control wildfire? Will we be held hostage to the stupidity and obstinance of the Trump base's refusal to heal our country of COVID? Will the bullheaded make the pandemic a deadly marathon rather than a less lethal sprint?
Biles is off the balance beam for now. Will America end up being off balance for good?
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.