“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say that you did not know.

Everyone has had some version of this nightmare: You forget to study for an exam or write a paper that’s due in the morning — or, you are running from a monster in hideous pursuit, and you keep falling down.

Relief comes upon waking and realizing that it was all just a bad dream. You are long past the days of term papers and tests, and monsters, everyone knows, aren’t real.

Except when they are. We hear the words of Stephen King: “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real, too. They live inside us, and sometimes they win.”

Now we wake, if we sleep at all, and the nightmare is real — and the monsters have names.

We don’t have to second-guess what happened to George Floyd. We saw the video and recoiled in horror. Nor do we have to deploy euphemisms or dodgy words like “apparently” or “allegedly” to recount how Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, cutting off blood and oxygen as the prone and cuffed man begged for air and his life.

Chauvin, charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, is surely the loneliest man on the planet. How does he sleep at night? I try to imagine what he thinks about in those dark hours when the wolf closes in, sniffing the hollowness at the threshold of his cell. Does he replay those nine minutes trying to understand why he did what he did? Does he even care?

The White House video of Trump's visit to St. John's Episcopal Church in D.C. erases the violent attack on protesters by authorities that preceded it. (The Washington Post)

From the video, it’s easy to see that Chauvin not only kept his knee in place despite outraged pleas from onlookers; he pressed his full body weight into Floyd’s neck. Why didn’t the other three officers stop this horror? What fear or evil allowed them to look away? Why didn’t the people taking video compel Chauvin or his brethren to stop? That’s impunity, incarnate.

The minds of monsters are hard to read. They are not like us. Monsters are without qualms, hesitations, empathy or remorse. Certitude animates the beast; power feeds its lust for more.

So it has been throughout history, including our own. When we say we can’t believe this is happening in the United States of America, we ignore our past, which, the great writer William Faulkner reminded us, is “not even past.” From genocide and slavery to Jim Crow, lynchings and the bloody beatings at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to the breath-shunting knee to George Floyd’s neck — mayhem is part of our legacy. Eventually, the boil created by centuries of torture, oppression and hatred — and routinely ignored and explained away — must burst again and again.

History suggests that both sides overplay weak hands, and some of that is happening here. We can’t let Floyd’s death be in vain, goes the refrain. True enough, but what does it mean if, as Atlanta-born rapper Killer Mike tearfully implored, we burn our own houses to the ground? The absurdity of rioters destroying public property was clarified with graffiti on the Lincoln Memorial.

By the same measure, President Trump’s vow to use the military against U.S. citizens, if realized, will only pour kerosene on the flames. His awkward pose with a Bible in front of a church after dispersing peaceful demonstrators with tear gas makes Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry seem like Moses.

If I may take a moment?

Four years ago, I wrote on the eve of the election that we’d survive no matter who won. It wasn’t an endorsement of either candidate but was an exercise in optimism based on my faith in our institutions and our system of checks and balances. Trump, whom I’d previously described as a hot-air buffoon, surely wouldn’t keep his tyrannical campaign promises, I declaimed.

How wrong I was. Our democratic republic was always an experiment without guarantees or necessarily an expectation of its success. “A republic, if you can keep it,” Benjamin Franklin once quipped. Today, as anarchists infiltrate peaceful demonstrators and wreak havoc from sea to sea, the joists of our foundations are being tested.

George Floyd surely never wanted to be a martyr. But, perhaps, he can rest in peace if his unjustified and unmerciful death prompts Americans to reflect and march peacefully across the Edmund Pettus Bridge of our collective memory to cast our ballots. The monsters in this nightmare are real, sure enough. But we know their names.

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