America needs a Jan. 6 commission
By Jesse Wegman
Barely 100 days have passed since American democracy came under direct attack on Jan. 6 — a date that should live in infamy.
But the Capitol riot is already in danger of being memory-holed.
This cannot be allowed to happen. President Joe Biden and Congress must not push it off any longer: As soon as possible, the American people need a thorough, unsparing and authoritative investigation that details exactly what took place and how on that horrific day, identifies the larger political and societal forces that encouraged it and points the way toward a future in which such an attack is harder if not impossible to pull off.
The only legitimate way to achieve these goals is through the establishment of an independent and bipartisan commission. Even before Jan. 6, it was clear that a commission would be necessary to take stock of the sheer amount of damage wrought by the Trump administration. After Jan. 6, it became clear that another was needed.
Five people died on that day, and it was only by sheer luck and some quick thinking by Capitol guards that the death toll wasn’t far higher. Rioters were openly intent on kidnapping and even killing top Democratic lawmakers, then-Vice President Mike Pence and anyone else they were told had betrayed them.
What’s standing in the way of a commission? The biggest obstacle is obvious: partisanship. The perpetrators of the Capitol attack were not terrorists on a murderous mission from abroad, but average Americans — grade-school teachers and public accountants, cops and clam-shack owners — who stormed the seat of American government, drunk on a lie about the 2020 election that had been fed to them for months by Donald Trump, his allies and leading Republicans in Congress.
Now that lie has metastasized to include an upside-down history of what happened on Jan. 6, regurgitated by many top Republicans — hence the right-wing agitprop fantasy in which shadowy leftist militants were the true villains.
It’s no surprise that roughly half of Republican voters now say they believe that the riot was a largely peaceful protest or that the only violence was committed by “left-wing activists” or others “trying to make Trump look bad,” according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll. An overwhelming majority of Republicans continue to believe that Joe Biden did not legitimately win the presidency.
This mass delusion is one of the main reasons an independent commission is essential. A commission’s report has the opportunity to establish the authoritative, fact-based narrative of what happened and why. Such a narrative won’t magically convince millions of people who are not interested in hearing the truth. But it could at least “narrow the range of permissible lies,” as writer and politician Michael Ignatieff once said about truth commissions. It could provide concrete recommendations for Congress to adopt now, as a way to prevent the next Jan. 6.
Prospects for a congressionally created commission looked good at first, as Republicans and Democrats in the House each drafted their own bills, both of which had smart ideas. So did a separate one proposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, modeled on the successful and respected 9/11 commission.
But negotiations have foundered over two key points of dispute: who sits on the commission and what those people investigate. Pelosi’s bill provides for 11 commissioners, with seven named by Biden or Democrats in Congress, and four named by Republicans. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, rejected this, calling it “partisan by design.” In response, Pelosi is threatening to abandon the process and leave any investigations to the House’s standing committees, or a select committee.
That would be a big mistake. As Americans have witnessed time and again, politically sensitive investigations conducted by sitting lawmakers are prone to being hijacked by grandstanders who care less about getting the truth than about getting more votes in their next election (see: Benghazi). Even if that weren’t an issue, there’s the problem of limited attention. Lawmakers are constantly dealing with a long list of pressing issues. Adding a major investigation to that docket would only slow it down and make it vulnerable to backroom deal-making.
The solution is to divide the commissioners equally between Democrats and Republicans but not include any current lawmakers or public officials. Nor should there be any role in choosing commissioners for the 147 lawmakers, including the House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, who endorsed the lie about the election by voting to reject the Electoral College results hours after the insurrection had been put down.
The good news is, that’s not necessary. There are plenty of Republicans in public life who put their country above their party, like the former national security officials and lawmakers who this month signed a bipartisan letter calling for a wide-ranging independent commission.
This isn’t to say Congress has no role to play. Two Senate committees are already conducting bipartisan hearings on some of the security and intelligence failings surrounding the Capitol riot. Last week, a new report by the Capitol Police inspector general found that officers were told not to use more aggressive tactics to fend off the mob, even though there were warnings that violence was likely. The dozens of prosecutions of those who breached the Capitol or committed violence will also bring to light crucial information.
These are all-important details to get into the record, but by themselves they are far from sufficient. As the national security officials’ letter made clear, any thorough investigation into the events of Jan. 6 must dig much deeper, to address the complex interplay of threats that led into and out of that day: coordinated disinformation campaigns on Facebook and other social media; the money being funneled to extremist networks; the ongoing specter of white supremacist violence, which the Department of Homeland Security has identified as a top threat.
A commission addressing all of these issues could include a wider range of perspectives, too — not just former elected officials but also political scientists who study the rise and fall of democracies, as well as experts in cybersecurity, disinformation and counterterrorism.
Finally and crucially, a Jan. 6 commission would need to be well funded and properly staffed and have the power to subpoena both documents and witnesses. It also needs the time to do a complete investigation, which could stretch well into 2022. The value of that investigation wouldn’t be limited to whatever final report it produced, because the public information and witness testimony that it generated would deepen the public’s understanding of the issues.
Can Congress manage to pass legislation creating a commission that can do all this? Given that its own members were the targets of the mob on Jan. 6 and in some cases may be alive today only because they took one stairwell instead of another, one would hope so. Certainly a congressionally created commission would be best. But if the process remains bogged down in partisan haggling, Biden needs to step in and do the job.
It is critical to the future of the Republic that the truth of Jan. 6 be told and that the bigger picture be understood. The worst possible outcome would be widespread public amnesia, which would guarantee that history would repeat — and next time, American democracy might not survive it.