The harrowing images from that day on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of insurrectionist rioters overran, ransacked and occupied the US Capitol, citadel of American democracy, sending lawmakers, along with the vice president of the United States, fleeing for their lives, remains seared in the collective memory of the American people.
The images, each hitting us like a punch, were invoked again on a giant screen looming over members of the House select committee as they began their first hearing last Thursday, one of six scheduled for the month of June. And the hearings themselves — clearly destined for the history books — were a year in the making, as legislators and their staffs examined roughly 125,000 documents and conducted 1,000 interviews.
The stakes could not be any higher, for beyond the why and the how of it all, the committee is tasked with no less than determining whether there’s enough evidence to warrant a criminal indictment of a former president.
And Americans are, as they say, hip to that stark reality — over 20 million of them sat glued to their TV screens, transfixed by what they saw and heard, much as had done an earlier generation of Americans, almost exactly half a century ago, when they watched the televised Senate Watergate hearings into alleged acts of malfeasance by President Richard Nixon.
All this turmoil comes as an expression of the troubled times that afflict Americans at this time in their modern history.
You want to know how fiercely divided Republicans and Democrats are — by definition how polarised are Americans and how fractured is their public debate — then consider this: In February, the Republican National Committee, the body responsible for promoting the Republican brand and articulating its political platform, declared that the insurrectionist assault on the US Capitol was “legitimate political discourse”.
President Biden, who begged to differ, declared it “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War”, a reference to the events in February, 1861, when a mob of proslavery rioters stormed the Capitol to stop the electoral votes from being counted, thus preventing the affirmation of Abraham Lincoln as president. (Familiar, no?)
So, why should people around the world, along with people inhabiting that part of it we call the Arab world give a hoot anyhow that America is going through what amounts to an identity crisis?
Well, to paraphrase Klemens Metternich’s famous 1840 maxim, we should give a hoot because “When America sneezes, the world catches a cold”.
In short, we should give a hoot because since it emerged as a superpower in the wake of the Second World War, America — backed by its overwhelming economic, military and cultural pre-eminence, not to mention the leading role it plays in international institutions such as the United Nations and Nato — wields enough clout to shape the landscape of global politics and the global dialogue of cultures.
Consequences of Jan. 6 hearings
The consequences of the Jan. 6 hearings, you see, will, directly or indirectly, and whether we like it or not, ripple to the shores of nations far and wide, East and West, affecting the lives of people everywhere around the world. This is the pride of America today as the world’s super power and our burden as that world’s rim.
This is a fact of life not unique to America but one that has, throughout history, been characteristic of any big power du jour, all the way from Ancient Egypt and Imperial Rome to Colonial Britain.
There’s another, more compelling reason why we should give a hoot about the House select Committee hearings: They are, at their core, a lesson to learn from and an eloquent statement about how democracy, true democracy, comes packaged with built-in, self-healing mechanisms — even when confronting daunting challenges.
Consider, in this regard, how these hearings have so far shown themselves to be, effectively, an unflinching dialogue between the American public and its elected officials, one focused on the sanctity of the social contract between ruler and ruled.
“The importance of these hearings isn’t simply about holding Mr. Trump, his allies and the flag-draped thugs storming the halls of congress to account”, editorialised the New York Times on Friday. “The hearings challenge all Americans to recommit to the principles of democracy, ask how important those values are to us and face the threats posed to our democratic way of life”.
The assault on the US Capitol was a landmark event of momentous import in our time. And it seems certain that the only narrative about it that will ultimately enter the history books will be the one outlined in the Jan. 6 House select committee. We pay it tribute by recognising how heavy is its burden.
Fawaz Turki is a noted thinker, academic and author based in Washington DC. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile