When Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) received the Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library on May 22, she appropriately deflected the praise to the law enforcement officials who fought off last year's Capitol rioters.
Better yet, she put that praise into a broader context, focusing less on President Donald Trump's specific effort to overturn the 2020 election than on the importance of defending the peaceful transition of power and on "the defense of our republic, the defense of the constitutional foundations of our nation."
Cheney described the scene in the Capitol on the night of Jan. 6, 2021.
"I left the House floor that night, and I walked to Statuary Hall," she said. "Law enforcement officers in black tactical gear were sitting on the floor, leaning up against the statues, exhausted from the brutal hand-to-hand combat in which they had been engaged for hours. Water bottles — with water they had been drinking and using to wash away the chemical spray deployed by the rioters — littered the floor. These men and women had spent hours battling a violent mob, a mob of our fellow countrymen, attempting to stop the transition of presidential power. For profiles in courage, we need look no farther than those men and women."
And in the Capitol rotunda, she said, "Against almost every wall encircling the room were SWAT teams — more men and women in riot gear, helmets, carrying long arms — some resting from battle, others standing watch — ATF, FBI, federal agents — deployed inside the United States Capitol building."
In a bit of profound symbolism, she said that among the eight murals above the resting SWAT teams was one that "depicts George Washington resigning his commission. At this moment in 1793 depicted in the painting, Washington voluntarily relinquished power. He handed control of the Continental Army back to Congress."
Further, she said, "With this noble act, George Washington set the indispensable example of the peaceful transfer of power in our country. This is what President Reagan called 'nothing short of a miracle.' This is what President Kennedy called, in his inaugural address, 'a celebration of freedom.'"
To defend that freedom, some 140 officers were injured in the line of duty, a large number of them seriously. Cheney paid tribute to them but then made her message more about what all of us must do, not just in the crucible of one riot but as citizens for life of a morally grounded, freedom-enshrining constitutional republic.
"The question for every one of us is, in this time of testing, will we do our duty?" she asked. "Will we defend our Constitution? Will we stand for truth? Will we put duty to our oath above partisan politics?"
Then, Cheney said this should be our commission: "In a republic, there are no bystanders, there are no spectators. As citizens, every one of us has a duty to set aside partisan battles and stand together to perpetuate and preserve our great republic."
Cheney is right. However, it must be said that this doesn't mean rogue individuals should claim to be trying to save the system by resorting to violent action against the "establishment." What Cheney means is supporting the legitimate processes outlined in the Constitution, which undergirds a system that again and again has proved up to the tasks of "establish[ing] justice … and secur[ing] the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."
Free men and women know how to keep the "order" in "ordered liberty" without sacrificing the "liberty." Cheney is right to remind us that it takes real commitment to be such free men and women.