As the impeachment trial of our former president winds on, I’ve been shocked all over again by the videos and other accounts of his supporters’ violent Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. But, I fear that one significant detail has not received proper attention.
When the mob surrounded the complex, some members of Congress and their staffs barricaded themselves behind locked doors — and searched for office supplies to defend themselves.
Office supplies? My father had a store that sold those. First place I ever worked, starting at age 12. I learned how many items are in a gross (12 dozen), a quire (24, usually sheets of paper) and a ream (500 sheets). I knew letter size (8.5 inches by 11 inches) from legal size (8.5 by 14). I could cut a mimeograph stencil and replace a typewriter platen — skills now obsolete, but I’m proud to have mastered them.
I grew to love office supplies. Years later, I learned I was not alone.
A character in Mark Halpern’s memorable 1991 novel, “A Soldier of the Great War,” shared my affliction. I discovered the medical term for it: papyrophilia — an obsession with paper, writing materials and printed matter of any kind. Sure, I now read some things online, but I prefer the heft, the texture, the sense of permanence you get from ink on paper.
Thus, I can affirm that our elected representatives, when faced with mortal danger, chose their defensive weapons wisely.
Among the items my father stocked was the compass. Not the one that points toward the North Pole, but the geometrical compass invented by Galileo in the 16th century to help chart-makers, office workers and school kids draw circles. Its pivot arm has a sharp point that can be lethal in close combat.
Same for the straight-edge ruler, wielded with frightening effect by the nuns who educated me through high school. Also the protractor, a rigid half-moon that measures the degrees of a circle. Properly sharpened, it can slice an intruder into equal segments.
If your office supply closet does not contain these items, it probably does have a few freshly sharpened pencils — deadly weapons in many a murder mystery and spy thriller. Printer ink cartridges can become handy missiles, even without a gun to fire them. But, you might have a staple gun. And you can floor almost any attacker with a three-hole punch.
I think the real reason Congress and its defenders went for the office supplies was not just fear. It was what stationery products represent: order, process, the rule of law. “Stationery,” a cousin of the word “stationary,” referred originally to the immovable locations of some early English sellers of paper and books (as distinct from itinerant peddlers).
Immovable is an apt description of my rather large father and his store, which first opened in the early 1900s. The word can also apply to Congress, the anchor of American democracy.
Most office supplies are designed for record-keeping, a practice that began 5,000 years ago with the Sumerians. The ancient Greeks elevated it to a high art and also gave us the gift of democracy. Perhaps simultaneously, the will of the people and historical memory of it became indelible, undeniable.
Thus was born the machinery of modern governance, with its written rules, standards and jurisprudence, its notions of fairness and propriety. Also, its assurances that a sheet of legal-size typing paper would be the same throughout the republic.
My father’s store burned to the ground when I was away at college. Firefighters said the cause of the blaze was electrical, but they were astonished by its intensity. The building burned through the night at a ferocious “Fahrenheit 451” degrees. Which, as readers of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian 1953 novel (and later film) of that name would know, is the temperature at which fire consumes paper.
My father was underinsured. The store never reopened, but his salesman’s optimism blazed on. He took a correspondence course in computing, dyed his graying hair and landed a job as a systems analyst. He marched into the electronic future, the one that would destroy the primacy of paper. When he died, I told myself he had merely migrated to the cloud.
But, he never really left the paper world. My father spent his last years surrounded by books, newspapers and magazines. He maintained meticulous records of his finances, his kids’ and grandkids’ accomplishments, his World War II military exploits. His office was a museum of patriotism and office supplies.
So, when supporters of our ex-president stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, my father would have known exactly what to do. As did those members of Congress and their staffs.
Facing the threat of violence from an anarchic, anti-democratic mob, they responded in the most appropriate way possible. They reached instinctively for the tools of order, democracy and civilization.