The image from that day, Jan. 6, 2021, shocked America to its core, as indeed it did the rest of the world — the image being that of a mob of several thousand insurrectionists, many attired like latter-day sans-culottes, storming the US Capitol soon after former president Donald Trump had urged them in a rally that morning to “fight like hell”.
The assault was effectively a coup, a coup-by-deadly-riot to be exact, but a coup nevertheless — in this case an attempt to violently prevent the peaceful transfer of power from a government that had lost the vote in a national election to one that had won it. And the attempt, very simply, obliged the American Republic to face no less than what surely was an existential threat to its very being as a constitutional democracy.
A full year after the fact, America continues to reckon with the implications of that day of terror, as the ongoing work of a bipartisan committee in the House of Representatives would attest, a committee tasked with investigating the attack and providing the American people with a report of its findings.
So far, this panel of legislators has interviewed 300 people, compiled 30,000 records and will soon receive a trove of White House documents from the National Archives. By next January, the twists in the narrative of the attack, as in a crime novel, will be deftly concluded and the mysteries solved.
Meanwhile, those of us who lived in Washington at the time and watched scenes of insurrectionists rampaging through the hallways of Congress, the citadel of American democracy — a citadel we had all thought was as impervious to attack as any other centre of power in the nation’s capital — ransacking lawmakers’ chambers and coming close to within seconds of entrapping Vice President Mike Pence (whom they intended to do grievous harm for certifying the election results), watched aghast. Were we looking at scenes in a horror movie?
But whichever a way you want to look at it, the shock of Jan. 6 continues to resound around every corner of America’s national psyche and may very well continue to do so for decades to come before it then passes from memory to history.
This Thursday, as we speak, lawmakers in Congress will engage in a slate of events to commemorate the first anniversary of that day, including a prayer vigil on the steps of the Capitol, a moment of silence on the House floor and testimonials from individual lawmakers sharing their accounts of the attack, followed by what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has dubbed a “historic perspective “, essentially a debate between prominent historians Doris Kearns Godwin and John Meacham, intended to “establish and preserve the narrative of Jan. 6” — all, sadly, amid flagging pride in the workings of American democracy — once considered the nation’s “noblest export to the world” — and increasing fissures in American society itself.
Commemorating the attack
It is sad but, yes, true, for consider how, as Americans commemorate the attack on the US Capitol, Democrats and Republicans on the Hill remain deeply divided over what happened that day and over the degree to which the former president bears responsibility for it, with a majority of the latter convinced that President Joe Biden was not legitimately elected.
Consider this: according to a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll released earlier this week, an astounding 34 per cent of Americans say violent action against the government is justified, while an equally astounding two-thirds of Republicans (and how millions of Americans is that!) still cling to the narrative — despite a preponderance of evidence against it — that the 2020 election was rigged, and thus “stolen” from former President Donald Trump.
It is not without reason that those other Americans call Jan. 6 the darkest day in modern American history.
“The consequences of that day are still coming into focus, but what is already clear is that the insurrection was not a spontaneous act or an isolated event”, we read in a comprehensive, 27-page Washington Post special report published in November. “It was a battle in a broader war over the truth and over the future of our democracy. Since then, the forces behind the attack remain potent and growing ... A deep distrust in the voting process has spread across the country, shaking the foundation on which the American experiment was built: the shared belief that the nation’s leaders are freely and fairly elected”.
And it doesn’t get any darker in a democracy than that — when citizens begin to harbour “deep distrust” of the democratic institutions in which the very foundation of their polity is anchored.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile