Confronting the Violence of January 6
We saw it with our own eyes. That should be enough for all Americans to want justice. But the partisan warfare has blinded far too many of us from basic humanity.
Note: This is a special Thursday publication (rather than our usual Friday) in recognition of the one-year anniversary of the January 6 insurrection and coup attempt.
We saw the violence with our own eyes: The smashing of windows. The head blows and bone-crunching with flagpoles, baseball bats, crutches, metal pipes, skateboards and a fire extinguisher. The punching and trampling. The use of lasers, stun guns and toxic sprays. The presence of a makeshift gallows, the invasion of the Senate chambers, the chanting to hang Mike Pence, the waving of Confederate flags. Later we learned of the lacerations and concussions, the fractures and burns, the heart attack and the deaths, including several suicides. Later we learned that 140 police officers were injured and at least five people died.
On that day, we heard natural human outrage, including from some Republicans. “We are witnessing absolute banana republic crap in the United States Capitol right now,” said Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher, telling Donald Trump, “you need to call this off.” On the phone with Fox News, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called the attacks “un-American” and “unacceptable” and added, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” The next day, January 7, McCarthy clearly stated, “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress.”
On January 7, Cabinet secretaries Elaine Chou and Betsy DeVos resigned. “Yesterday, our country experienced a traumatic and entirely avoidable event as supporters of the President stormed the Capitol…it has deeply troubled me in a way that I simply cannot set aside,” Chou wrote to her staff. “Impressionable children are watching all of this, and they are learning from us,” DeVos said in her resignation letter.
Former Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, then serving as a special envoy to Northern Ireland, also handed in his resignation. “I can’t do it. I can’t stay,” Mulvaney told CNBC. “We didn’t sign up for what you saw last night.”
There was a moment when this horrific day, this heinous event, this deadly insurrection finally revealed Trump for who he is (for anyone still wondering) and the damage his lies of election fraud and incitement of violence could cause. There was a sense that finally—after four years of corruption, cruelty and criminality—his actions defiling the peaceful transfer of power had finally crossed a line that was inarguably dangerous for America and democracy.
Even a month later, after Trump’s second impeachment (and the Senate’s refusal to convict him for insurrection), we heard Mitch McConnell say, "Former President Trump's actions that preceded the riot were a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty. Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day."
Perhaps, finally, the country had had enough? Had this most egregious attack on the US Capitol since the War of 1812 finally reached a turning point?
Forget the reality of this deadly event that could have been far deadlier without the bravery of police inside the Capitol. The hunger to pin the blame on the enemy and hold onto power was too strong. In the days and weeks that followed, the revisionists—in Congress and on Fox News and its right-wing imitators—were hard at work claiming January 6 was either a largely peaceful event or a false flag operation driven by left-wing agitators to make the heroic Donald Trump look bad. They claimed the attack had nothing to do with white supremacy and racism or a rising tide of radical right-wing extremism.
“I have never seen Trump rally attendees wearing helmets, black helmets, brown helmets, black backpacks—the uniforms you saw in some of these crowd shots,” Fox host Laura Ingraham said. (Her colleague and conspiracy monger Tucker Carlson would later release a three-part series blaming federal agents seeking to entrap decent Americans.)
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson said he never felt threatened on January 6. “I knew those are people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law, so I wasn’t concerned,” he said in March, adding that if “those were tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters, I might have been a little concerned.”
Later, in May, Georgia Rep. Andrew Clyde took the charade even further. He said the events of January 6 resembled “a normal tourist visit” and called claims of insurrection “a bold-faced lie.”
As for the desperate-for-power Kevin McCarthy? Before January was over, he was kowtowing to Trump in Mar-a-Lago and proclaiming proudly that Trump “committed to helping elect Republicans in the House and Senate in 2022.” As if his role on January 6—including attacking McCarthy while he was inside the Capitol for caring less about the election than the rioters—had never happened.
Despite the televised and recorded horror of that day, the impact of disinformation and the powerful instinct to cling to partisan beliefs was already discernible in January. In one American Enterprise Institute poll, half of Republicans agreed that antifa was “mostly responsible” for the Capitol attack, while only 15 percent blamed Trump for inciting the attack.
Attitudes have only hardened since then—and worse, helped usher in an expanding acceptance of political violence beyond a radical core of extremists: In a newly released poll from the Washington Post and the University of Maryland, four out of 10 Republicans now say that violent political action can be justified and six of 10 Republicans say Joe Biden was not legitimately elected.
But let’s return once more to the tragic days of January 6 and its immediate aftermath. There are so many stories of officers assaulted and injured, struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and other physical and mental conditions, many of which illustrate the permanent, life-altering consequences of that day’s violence.
But remember this one: The story of 35-year-old D.C. police officer Jeffrey Smith, who did what he could to defend the Capitol that day even while frightened by a police report that rioters were opening fire. Around 5:35 p.m., he was hit by a metal pole, which struck his helmet and face shield. That night, after visiting the police medical clinic, he was put on sick leave.
In the following days, his wife recalled, he seemed different. He was in constant pain, he refused to leave the house or talk to anyone, and during the night she found him pacing.
Eight days after the insurrection and coup attempt incited by Donald Trump, Jeffrey Smith was told to go back to work. On his way in, he shot himself in the head.
Tens of millions of Republicans now say they think political violence is sometimes justified. We know that the former occupant of the White House and far too many others in the GOP who have chosen to emulate his sociopathy may relish the power that such violent attitudes can provide them in the coming years. But perhaps if more Americans from across the political spectrum engage the concrete reality of violence—what it can lead to for a man like Officer Jeffrey Smith—the benumbed mindset can be cracked.
While I continue to believe that the prosecution of the plotters and inciters of January 6—holding them accountable—is the urgent step that gives us the best chance to turn a corner, it is up to all of us to find whatever ways we can to minimize violent thinking and encourage greater compassion.
One last note: I have been among the voices urging an accelerated pace and greater transparency from Attorney General Merrick Garland—convinced that every day that he and the DOJ don’t hold the insurrectionists accountable only strengthens the resolve of those committed to more attacks against our democracy. Yesterday, Garland’s public statements offered some promise that he will pursue prosecutions beyond the foot soldiers: “The Justice Department remains committed to holding all January 6 perpetrators, at any level, accountable under the law whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy. We’ll follow the facts wherever they lead." But the time has passed to sit back and relax. We must remain vigilant in urging the AG and the DOJ to operate with maximum urgency, albeit with care.
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It's surely well past time to start arresting the organizers and financers of the insurrection. This was truly a conspiracy who had its kingpin in the Whitehouse!
Garland doesn’t get it. In essence his statement kicked the can down the road. We’re gambling everything on trusting him. The least he can do is recognize this isn’t 1960 and that Justice needs to communicate more, and more frequently. We’re in a 24 hour news cycle. The Justice department is no exception, but they are in denial of this fact and they’re not participating, while every other agent and actor is busy shaping public opinion which, whether they are in denial or not, actually matters.