In the weeks between the Capitol riot on January 6th, 2021 and the inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20, some 25,000 National Guardspeople descended on Washington, D.C., from all over the country. Along with other local and federal law enforcement agents, they stood guard at what seemed like every downtown intersection, manned security checkpoints, and patrolled the miles of razor wire-topped fencing that formed a perimeter around the entirety of the National Mall.

The result was an eery quiet and emptiness in the streets—a simultaneous sense of tension and exhaustion, against which the pomp of the inauguration felt like meager consolation. Lights flashed. Humvees idled in alleyways. Barricades stretched across wide boulevards. Soldiers stared out impassively from behind them, dressed for war and prepared, in theory, to repel a mob of their own countrymen and countrywomen.

It seemed possible to me that there were as many journalists as tourists—maybe even more. All of us, at any rate, appeared to be in a state of amazement, disbelief, quiet contemplation, or else a combination of all three. Even some of the guardspeople didn’t seem to know how to make sense of the situation. At one point, I watched a photographer stick his camera in a young guardsman’s face, justfying himself by saying, “I mean, how often do you see this?” The guardsman just shrugged and shook his head.

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