We are all now witness to the events of last Wednesday in Washington.

I am bound for Shanghai to teach students from China and Europe and Africa about Law and Society in America. What should I say to them?

So disturbed in me are the roots of my feelings for my country, and for our traditions of law and self-government, that my emotions strain against each other like a surging crowd.

Some remembered poetry struggles against the images I have seen: verses of Auden considering a time of demagogues, and lines of Yeats on surviving political storms, and words of Eliot about faith and history.

First, that ranting man in front of our flag and preening behind Plexiglas.

Then, ready, start your rumor, soft / But horrifying in its capacity to disgust / Which, spreading magnified, shall come to be / … a prodigious alarm. Scattering the people, as torn up paper / Rags and utensils in a sudden gust / Seized with immeasurable neurotic dread.

The faces we saw. So much like those postcards from a lynching in the Jim Crow South: in the background the terrible death, and in the foreground so many lost faces, eager to be photographed, excited to be included in the crowd, or making off with a piece of clothing or rope, or just aimlessly milling about.

What we know to be not possible / Though time after time foretold / Or revealed to a child in some chance rhyme / Like will and kill, comes to pass / Before we realize it: we are surprised / At the ease and speed of our deed / And uneasy.

My memories of visiting Washington, as child and as adult, of the Capitol on its hill so splendidly lit in the night, and the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial and the Supreme Court, and the long pool of reflection.

My walks around Tiananmen Square, and Red Square, and down the streets that were once divided by the Wall in Berlin, and video footage of such transcendently and differently motivated crowds in those places, and of the great peaceful inspiring marchers for civil rights, again and again and again, in Washington.

The great American films that show a solitary honorable man standing up to an American mob: Atticus Finch protecting the innocent in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and our 16th president as a young man confronting torches and ignorance in John Ford’s “Young Man Lincoln.”

My contempt for two senators: one educated at my own university, both highly trained in the law. Unprecedented allegations of fraud, both say. A literal truth (because the president whose supporters they hope to attract has made those allegations), but an intentional lie (because they know those supporters ignore or don’t understand the word “allegations” and only hear “unprecedented … fraud”). Which the senators know is untrue.

Imagine using your privileged education to mislead the less fortunate. And with a raised fist. One wise woman judged them “punk politicians.” Indeed.

All that day we surfed cable and internet, from MSNBC to Fox News, from The New York Times to Drudge.

We, who seven years ago / Talked of honor and of truth / Shriek with pleasure if we show / The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth / … We traffic in mockery.

The ubiquitous accusation of hypocrisy is not an argument of principle. When we see a crime, we should not always say, “But others have done similar.” That is how Stalin and Hitler would argue in Hell.

All that stands between the rioting mob and decent order is the tradition of self-government and law and institutional memory, internalized as principle, embodied by thousands of public servants and millions of citizens across the country — they oversaw the election and stood up to intimidation, to vote for themselves and to count the votes of others.

What is to be done? If such tragedy, and such farce, is not to recur? The remedy lies within each of us — as does the potential for committing the crimes we have watched others commit.

None of us is liable for the crimes of others, whether committed last Wednesday or in the distant past or a different place. But as Americans who love our country all of us should be responsible for our history and our present — alive to the truth of our present, and unafraid of contradictions in our history.

My own prayer in this peculiar time is that I might treat each individual American I encounter with justice, without malice, and with charity.

If we all can act that way more than we have recently, then, to the extent one can say this of any human institutions, including those of our dear democratic constitutional republic, all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.