Commentary: Why we must investigate the events of Jan. 6

June 28, 2021 6:10 am
A man carries a Confederate flag while marching in Washington on Jan. 6.

Crowds arrive for the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C. (Spencer Platt | Getty Images)

The threat to our democracy from Jan. 6 is enduring. The unprecedented insurrection on our nation’s Capitol may only exist now on the plethora of video footage that is still being used to identify and prosecute participants. The threat posed by that now infamous day, however, remains, and its lethality depends on how we respond not to individual insurrectionists, but to the event as a potentially precedent-setting one. Is our Capitol – is our democracy – available for the taking? This question looms large before us still. 

To declare our democracy off limits, we must thoroughly investigate Jan. 6. Ideally, this would involve a bipartisan commission akin to the 9/11 Commission. There was legislation to create just such a commission, and it passed the U.S. House of Representatives with bipartisan support. Cue the filibuster, which enabled a minority of Republican senators to block the legislation that would have helped investigate an attack on the very building in which they stood. 

Given Senate Republicans’ confounding opposition to a bipartisan commission, the House should do what it can. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement that she will create a select committee to investigate Jan. 6 is welcome news. Even if a select committee is not ideal, it is desperately needed at this point. 

We need to investigate not just what went wrong on the day of Jan. 6 but what went wrong leading up to that day. Yes, this is about accountability. But just as important, it is about prevention. An objective and thorough investigation must include recommendations for what we need to do to ensure Jan. 6 never repeats. 

It’s been over five months since Jan. 6. Ask yourself, what has happened thus far that would deter a second insurrection, or a third? Or prevent Jan. 6 from serving as a blueprint for state capital insurrections? 

Prosecutions of individuals will not deter a second insurrection. Our criminal legal system is nothing if not solid proof that prosecutions have minimal deterrent value. We have to think beyond the individuals and look at root causes. How did individuals manage to pull off what most anyone would have thought impossible on Jan. 5?

If you had only heard about Jan. 6 and not seen the videos, would you have believed it? Or would your first reaction have been, “What country did that happen in?” With the subtext being, “because it obviously would never happen in the United States?” 

This is why a comprehensive investigation is in our collective best interest, even our economic best interest. Because Jan. 6 happened to our Capitol, in open daylight, on live television. 

Even if you downplay the significance of Jan. 6 politically, or democratically, recognize that its precedent potential could have far-reaching consequences. Our economy may not have taken a hit from this first insurrection, for instance, but take seriously the threat to our economy of another insurrection. 

The stock market bets on tomorrow, not on today. This helps explain why the stock market had a good Jan. 6, while our country did not. If you are a betting person, it’s not hard to see why you would bet on Jan. 6 being an anomaly as it was happening. After all, how many times have we seen an insurrection at our Capitol? 

The insurrectionists did not change the outcome of the election this time. But if we do not respond appropriately, we allow Jan. 6 to be a blueprint for the next insurrection, whose participants will have learned the lessons of the first and potentially be more lethal, more dangerous, and more successful. A second insurrection becomes a trend, something the stock market would almost surely react to as speculation shifts from “never again” to “what next?” 

We need a thorough investigation that is laser focused on Jan. 6 and will not let up until those conducting the investigation have fully established why Jan. 6 happened, how it happened, and what we do to prevent it from happening again. 

A congressional investigation can also help ensure that we do not overreact by passing legislation with unintended consequences. We must heed the lessons of the Patriot Act, for instance, which came in rushed response to 9/11, and has subsequently been used to surveil communities of color and criminalize legitimate dissent. There are concerns that new domestic terrorism legislation could have the same desperate impact. A congressional investigation can advise on what additional legislation is actually needed to respond to domestic extremism and what guardrails must be included. 

A bipartisan commission laser focused on Jan. 6 and armed with subpoena powers would have been best. Without 60 votes to move legislation through the Senate, Speaker Pelosi has done what she can. 

She can form a select committee without the support of Republicans, which inevitably risks it being seen as more partisan and less credible. But partisanship is what’s blocking the formation of a commission, and time is not a virtue here. A select committee will include Republicans, albeit with less influence than they would have had with a bipartisan commission – which they blocked. If Republicans now attempt to discredit the select committee for being partisan, they have only themselves to blame. 

How thoroughly we investigate Jan. 6 and heed the lessons from it could determine whether Jan. 6 repeats. And this includes the possibility of it repeating locally, at state capitals. Turning a blind eye to the insurrection is akin to having our national security strategy be to cross our fingers and wish upon a star. Good luck with that. I’ll support the select committee. 

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