The heart of American democracy was attacked on Jan. 6. Congress cannot even agree on appointing an independent commission to investigate. Photo Credit: Pixabay
On January 6 the Capitol building was invaded for only the second time in American history. Hundreds of individuals stormed the Capitol, threatened lawmakers, and attacked police and security officials. The attackers waved Confederate flags, held gallows and nooses, and displayed racist and anti-Semitic tattoos. Five died in total, with the possibility of even a greater number of casualties.
To further convey the gravitas of the situation, the events of the Jan. 6 attack are being classified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as a domestic terrorist attack. The Bureau’s definition characterizes “terrorism” as including “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”[i] Video evidence and media reports exemplify participants engaged in dangerous acts to influence the policy of the United States government through intimidation, breaking-and-entering, vandalism, and even through attempted assassination or kidnapping.[ii] When testifying to Congress on March 2, FBI Director Christopher Wray reaffirmed the attack as “domestic terrorism.”[iii]
And yet, despite the horrifying events on Jan. 6, Congress still has not appointed an independent commission to investigate. In fact, the events of last week have shown the opposite – Senator Ron Johnson suggested in a Senate hearing that the pro-Trump and far-right mob had actually been a majority-peaceful crowd with some “provocateurs” that included members of the far-left anti-fascism activist group “Antifa.”[iv] This conspiracy theory, meant to exonerate the Trump supporters at the Capitol, is not factual (the FBI declared there was no evidence of Antifa involvement), and is an unnecessary detour at best and a dereliction of duty at worst.[v] Unfortunately, Johnson is not the only one engulfed in a partisan spat, as there has been much disagreement on both sides of the aisle about determining the independent commission’s composition, abilities, and scope, or even its necessity. Republicans have called Speaker Pelosi’s recently proposed commission “partisan by design” and immediately dismissed it; Democrats are not in agreement about what should happen either.[vi]
These events illustrate that some members of Congress are refusing to take this investigation process seriously. Legitimate concerns over how best to proceed with a commission are fine, but partisan squabbles invoking conspiracy theories and spouting fiction when American security is at stake is not. There are core values, including the rule of law and condemning violence, that leaders should agree on in the United States. It is of the utmost importance to take a strong, bipartisan stand and investigate this domestic terrorist attack to show both American citizens and the entire world that the United States continues to believe in these values and that national security is taken seriously.
A strong and bipartisan Congressional response to the attack on Jan. 6 would:
Exhibit U.S. Capability to Foreign Adversaries
A Congressionally-appointed independent commission would show the United States’ adversaries and allies that the U.S. is serious and capable of handling a terrorist threat at home. It would also affirm that the U.S. remains the leader in democracy and rule of law and push back against any claim of hypocrisy. Already, adversaries have taken advantage of the situation while allies have watched in horror. Iran’s President Rouhani called the Jan. 6 attack proof that “Western democracy is weak,” while Russian government spokesperson Maria Zakharova called the American electoral system “archaic” and that it “does not meet modern democratic standards.”[vii] China, a key rising power and an authoritarian regime, argued that the U.S. media was “hypocritical in denouncing [Jan. 6] rioters after extolling pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.”[viii]
The U.S. has already “hemorrhaged” influence and soft power during the Trump presidency, and American credibility has been damaged.[ix] Now, the world is witnessing white supremacist domestic terrorism create deep partisan divisions, with no agreement from America’s legislature on a way forward. The United States is supposed to be a global champion of democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. A bipartisan Congressional response to Jan. 6 would demonstrate that the U.S. stands for the protection of liberal values and for the prosecution of illiberal actions.
Congress must also take a definitive stance to show that the U.S. will not tolerate foreign collaboration with extremists. Intelligence officials are already worried about online coordination between domestic white supremacists and those in Germany.[x] It is likely that adversaries like Russia will try to take further advantage, as some U.S. extremists have connections overseas.[xi] As such, an independent commission would prove to the world that the United States is able to handle domestic attacks, making the U.S. a worthy promoter and exporter of liberal values globally.
Prove to U.S. Citizens That Violence is Never Justified
Beyond the global audience, Congress must come together and investigate the Jan. 6 attack to demonstrate to Americans that violence is never justified. What is unique about this terrorist attack is that it actually has substantial American support. Following January 6, one YouGov poll found that 45% of Republicans strongly or somewhat supported storming the Capitol.[xii] This kind of attack should never be normalized nor supported, but a major reason this number is so large is due to disinformation that promoted the idea the 2020 election was stolen.[xiii] If the United States is to survive as a democracy, there must be a commitment to truth and the rule of law. As disinformation, conspiracies, and extremists will always be present in the political discourse, Congress should be the fallback, an institution that promotes truth and justice that drowns out the other noise. Because Jan. 6 has become a partisan issue in many ways (as the Ron Johnson incident shows), it would send Americans a powerful signal for Congress to unite and commission an independent investigation.
But beyond showing a united front amidst partisan drama, an independent commission is needed to provide disincentive for this to happen ever again. As the polls show, Americans are confused about what is legal, and to be clear – hate speech is protected but violence is definitely not.[xiv] An independent commission that aggressively investigates and makes prosecutorial recommendations, in conjunction with the Bureau’s investigation, conveys that there will be consequences for any similar actions. As the U.S. remains polarized, having Republican and Democratic leaders together here is quintessential.
Provide Justice for Minorities and Bring Prosecuting White Supremacy to the Forefront
Congress uniting to commission an investigatory body for the Jan. 6 sends a supportive signal to BIPOC Americans, Jewish Americans, and all who were (rightfully) offended by the attack. January 6, while pro-Trump, was also deeply rooted in white supremacy and far-right extremism – the rioters waved Confederate flags, wore “Camp Auschwitz” shirts, and carried nooses. In the civil-rights era of the 1960s, the FBI used both law enforcement and covert action to eliminate the influence of the KKK and other white supremacist groups.[xv] Today, hate crimes and anti-Semitism are rising in the United States, and Congress coming down hard now could help stop the tide. While no commission is going to heal these hateful divisions, it does give a psychological win to members of minority communities to see support from Congress.[xvi] With recommendations and more information discovered through the commission, there is the chance for hard justice as attackers are held accountable.
By choosing to pursue justice, Congress would also be placing far-right extremism and white supremacy at the forefront of counterterrorism efforts. For too long, homegrown white supremacy has been an afterthought of the American national security apparatus, despite a rise in terrorist attacks and plots since 2013 that have been carried out by this exact demographic.[xvii] An independent commission that investigates the motives, collaboration, networks, and plans of Jan. 6 would give insight into how this group thinks and acts, providing useful information to prevent future attacks. Overall, a detailed commission similar to the 9/11 commission could generate a roadmap to avoid future security breaches and emphasize far-right extremism as a national security threat.
Going forward, it would be beneficial for Congress to look at a variety of factors that contributed to one of the United States’ biggest recent security failures. This investigation should examine both local security failures (including Capitol Police’s plan or lack thereof), as well as the extremists (who was responsible for organizing, what their motives were, and how the attack was planned).[xviii] The investigation should also cover any potential links to foreign governments.
The attacks on January 6 were horrible. A failure to act in a bipartisan manner, come together as a country, and condemn violence as exhibited would spell deeper consequences of our nation.
[i] Lisa N. Sacco, “Domestic Terrorism and the Attack on the U.S. Capitol,” Congressional Research Service, Jan. 13, 2021. https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IN/IN11573.
[iii] Brian Naylor and Ryan Lucas, “Wray Stresses Role Of Right-Wing Extremism In Hearing About Jan. 6 Riot,” NPR, Mar. 2, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/03/02/972539274/fbi-director-wray-testifies-before-congress-for-1st-time-since-capitol-attack.
[iv] Carl Hulse, “Lawmakers Clash Over Call for Special Panel to Investigate Capitol Assault,” New York Times, Feb. 25, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/25/us/capitol-assault-commission.html.
[v] Davey Alba, “FBI says there is no evidence Antifa participated in storming the Capitol,” New York Times, Jan. 8, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/08/technology/fbi-says-there-is-no-evidence-antifa-participated-in-storming-the-capitol.html.
[vi] Carl Hulse, “Lawmakers Clash.”
[vii] Patrick Tucker, “China, Russia, Iran Spin Capitol Insurrection,” Defense One, Jan. 7, 2021, https://www.defenseone.com/threats/2021/01/china-russia-iran-spin-capitol-insurrection/171267/.
[ix] Jonathan Marcus, “Viewpoint: What the Capitol riot means for U.S. foreign policy,” BBC, Jan. 10, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55585546.
[x] David Rohde, “Biden’s Vital But Fraught Battle Against Domestic Terrorism,” The New Yorker, Jan. 25, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/bidens-vital-but-fraught-battle-against-domestic-terrorism.
[xi] Daniel L. Byman, “The assault on the U.S. Capitol opens a new chapter in domestic terrorism,” Brookings, Jan. 19, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/01/19/the-assault-on-the-u-s-capitol-opens-a-new-chapter-in-domestic-terrorism/.
[xii] Matthew Smith et. al., “Most voters say the events at the U.S. Capitol are a threat to democracy,” YouGov, Jan. 6, 2021, https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/articles-reports/2021/01/06/US-capitol-trump-poll.
[xiii] Robert C. Post, “The Other Tragedy of January 6,” The Atlantic, Jan. 16, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/01/the-other-tragedy-of-january-6/617695/.
[xiv] David Rohde, “Biden’s Vital But Fraught Battle.”
[xv] Daniel L. Byman, “The assault on the U.S. Capitol.”
[xvi] Brian Michael Jenkins, “Why We Need a January 6 Commission to Investigate the Attack on the Capitol,” RAND, Jan. 20, 2021, https://www.rand.org/blog/2021/01/why-we-need-a-january-6-commission-to-investigate-the.html.
[xvii] Daniel L. Byman, “The assault on the U.S. Capitol.”
[xviii] Jordan Tama, “How a January 6 Commission Can Succeed: What Empirical Research Tells Us,” Just Security, Feb. 24, 2021, https://www.justsecurity.org/74925/how-a-january-6-commission-can-succeed-what-empirical-research-tells-us/.