Traumatic, violent acts bookended the first two decades of this century. The first was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which claimed the lives of almost 3,000 innocents. The second was the January 6, 2021 storming of the US Capitol which took its own unique toll on American life.
Though vastly different, 9/11 and 1/6 both hit us hard.
During the more than four decades I’ve lived in Washington, no other events so dramatically impacted daily life of people in my city. They left us stunned. In the wake of both attacks, we witnessed unprecedented security measures that left parts of Washington looking as though we were under armed military control. Both left us feeling violated and vulnerable. What we had taken for granted was no longer assured.
A significant difference between the two attacks was the reaction of legislators and political leaders. Because the perpetrators of 9/11 were foreigners and the death toll was so staggering, Americans generally unified.
In response to the state of insecurity, Democrats and Republicans in Congress joined together to expand the reach of law enforcement. In many cases, it meant violating constitutionally protected rights while contributing little to protecting Americans from future attacks.
In the process, thousands of Arab and Muslim immigrants were deported without due process. Thousands more were profiled, denied access to flights, and lost employment and housing opportunities. And the door was opened to intrusive and unwarranted surveillance of Arab citizens and residents – with bipartisan support.
After an exhaustive investigation, a congressionally-created commission concluded that the terrorists were not homegrown. They were sent here on an evil mission to take the lives of as many Americans as possible. They kept largely to themselves and had no domestic support base. It also became clear that, had the various US intelligence agencies communicated with one another, they might have been able to avert the disaster.
Instead of placing the blame where it belonged, Republicans and Democrats continued to support legislation and practices that singled out Arabs and Muslims – as if they had been the cause of the attacks. As a result, many in these communities lived in fear, feeling that segments of the larger public had become suspicious of them. Hate crimes rose, as did acts of outright discrimination.
During the decade after 9/11, accelerating after Barack Obama’s election, the GOP continued to prey on this fear of Arabs and Muslims, exploiting it as a partisan issue in successive election cycles. It was the Republican’s growing use of anti-Muslim sentiment that paved the way for Donald Trump’s xenophobic campaign for the presidency.
Unlike 9/11, the 1/6 insurrection and violent assault on the Capitol was a domestic affair – with several far right and anti-government militias co-ordinating the attack. As we now know, law enforcement anticipated violence before the inauguration, but appeared unprepared for the magnitude of the disruption. As throngs of violent rioters stormed the building, officials were slow in responding, leaving the ill-equipped Capitol Police to fend for themselves.
It was traumatising to witness the scenes of armed thugs storming the halls of Congress, shattering windows to gain entrance, vandalising offices, beating police, and terrorising members. Even more shocking was the fact that this violent insurrection was incited by the President, his son, his attorney, and members of Congress with the expressed purpose of overturning the results of the election.
After the National Guard and several area police departments arrived on the scene, the Capitol was cleared, leaving in its wake five dead, dozens wounded, significant property damage, and a nation in shock. In the aftermath of this violent insurrection, some guardsmen remained deployed to secure the Capitol and other federal sites.
Despite the trauma of seeing a symbol of our democracy under attack, initial indications of national unity were short-lived. Republicans who supported Trump’s claim of election fraud, initially recoiled in horror at the violence and condemned the former president’s behaviour. A few days later, these same partisans were once again backing Trump.
While 9/11 brought us together, 1/6 appears to have done the opposite.
After 9/11, I was struck by how many commentators and political leaders foolishly claimed that the terrorist attack posed an “existential threat” to our country. That was nonsense. Al Qaeda’s ideology or the massive toll never challenged our guiding values. If anything, it was discriminatory counterterrorism policies that drove our endless “war on terror” that posed the existential threat to our country. What’s disturbing is how rarely the term “existential threat” is used to describe the assault on our democracy by Republican politicians and white supremacist thugs – when that is exactly what it was.
With 70 per cent of Trump voters still believing the election results were fraudulent and little, if any, repercussions for those who incited the violent insurrection seeking to overturn the results of a lawful election, we are facing an existential crisis of historic proportions.
With 9/11, our security and rights were put at risk. With 1/6, it was our very democracy that was threatened.