Rampant chaotic scenes that unfolded in and around the Capitol building in Washington DC yesterday – an attempted coup fermented by US President Trump – reminded me of a similar situation I once experienced in another country.
It was then, as a foreign correspondent for The Times of London, I learned first-hand how, unfortunately, violent coups can sometimes reap rich political rewards.
It was Bucharest, September 1991.
President Ion Iliescu, a former member of the Communist apparatchik who had taken over the country after the Christmas Day 1989 execution of dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, wanted rid of the country’s Prime Minister, Petre Roman.
When all else failed, he and his henchmen urged thousands of burly coal miners from the countryside to come to Bucharest, promising them a better life while igniting fierce anger with false stories portraying peaceful protesters in the capital city as traitors to the nation.
Protestors, many of them young students, had occupied a city center square, Piata Victoriei, seeking civil rights. As miners armed with makeshift weapons rushed from buses and trains, massive street clashes began. Some people were killed, others severely injured.
As a journalist, I mingled with the crowds to cover the story, observing up-close as the shocking spectacle unfolded, defenceless people maimed and murdered with iron bars, shovels and pickaxes.
Soon, the bloody scene became utterly frenzied, as mobs of miners, some uniformed, some not, roamed the streets seeking new targets. Anyone nearby, regardless of age or gender, became victims, including myself. Caught and attacked by a group of miners, I consider myself lucky to have escaped alive, especially when the one who held me in a tight stranglehold kept screaming in my face ‘Te facem praf,’ which I was reliably informed later translated as ‘we will beat you into dust.‘
As for Prime Minister Petre Roman, he was forced to resign. In an interview with myself and one other journalist in his private office several days afterwards, he said he would be back in power soon. He never was.
That was Romania soon after Communism fell. That was before the explosion of social media. Before websites, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Yesterday’s shocking scenes in Washington took place not in a country just emerging from the shadow of Communism, but one that has enjoyed many decades of democracy, free of absolute dictatorship. Ironically, a country that has repeatedly criticised Romania for its lack of acceptable democratic norms.
Yesterday’s scenes in the US show that democracy cannot be taken for granted, that it can be so easily shattered, especially in today’s technological age where hate-filled individuals and organisations are allowed to spoon-feed false rhetoric to people on the Internet.
Political and civic leaders must act now to control the immense power of social media which, too often, has become an echo chamber of fake news and xenophobia. Such platforms combust passions spontaneously. And once inflamed, create destruction and death in their wake.
Suspension of Donald Trump’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts is too little, too late. The world of social media must be better regulated, a powerful public-private collaboration, to make sure hate groups aren’t given a license to kill.