WASHINGTON — Twenty years ago, an attack from outside its borders brought the United States together. Twelve months after Jan. 6, 2021, an attack from within continues to tear it apart.
Thursday marks one year since frenzied supporters of Donald Trump, spurred on by the outgoing president’s bogus claims of a stolen election, laid siege to the U.S. Capitol in what’s now widely seen as an organized effort to prevent Joe Biden from taking over as commander-in-chief.
And far from the sense of national unity that pervaded the U.S. in the months that followed the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Americans seem as divided as ever about their politics, their president and the best way forward.
Five people died either in or as a direct result of the hours-long melee on Capitol Hill, including Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who succumbed to his injuries the following day after being struck in the head with a fire extinguisher and hit in the face with pepper spray.
Protester and Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt was shot and killed by police as she and several others tried to smash their way through the doors leading to the speaker’s lobby. Three other Trump supporters — Kevin Gleeson, Rosanne Boyland and Benjamin Philips — also lost their lives.
But countless other Capitol Police officers remain scarred, physically and emotionally, not only from the events of that day but also what they describe as the political efforts since then to shrug off Jan. 6 as a legitimate and non-violent public protest.
Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, a decorated U.S. Army veteran and Capitol Police officer, was among several who testified before Congress last year about the experience. During a live panel discussion Tuesday with the Washington Post, he described a lingering sense of betrayal.
“You come to work and you see the same people that I risked my life (for), to give them a chance to go to a secure area and not be harmed … I bled for it,” Gonell said.
“And now they’re telling me and the other officers that our sacrifices were not warranted, because the crowd was friendly, the crowd were tourists, that they were just exercising their First Amendment rights. It wasn’t — I almost lost my life doing that.”
Chief Tom Manger, who came out of retirement to lead the Capitol Police in the aftermath of the riot, testified Wednesday before the Senate select committee that continues to investigate the events of Jan. 6, laying out in detail the ways in which the department has been fortified over the last 12 months.
Manger said while there is no evidence of any credible threats of violence erupting Thursday, the Capitol received about 9,600 threats last year in the form of phone calls, emails and generic anonymous comments on social media, compared with about 8,000 the previous year.
“A couple of years ago, it was only 4,000 or 5,000, so the number has been going up steadily each year,” he told a news conference. “I don’t know that we have a normal year anymore.”
Unlike the show of unity that followed 9/11, Americans appear more fractured then ever, particularly on the question of the events of last January. A new poll by USA Today and Suffolk University lays those divisions bare.
While 83 per cent of respondents said they were worried about the future of democracy in the U.S., they part ways along political lines over why: 58 per cent of Republicans who took part in the survey still say Biden is not the legitimate president, despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.
Only a narrow majority of all respondents, 53 per cent, said the Senate select committee that’s investigating the events of Jan. 6 is doing important work, including 88 per cent of Democrats, while 42 per cent of the 1,000 people surveyed dismissed the committee as a waste of time, including 78 per cent of Republicans.
Trump, believed to be laying the groundwork for a presidential comeback in 2024, had been planning to mark the day with a news conference from his country-club compound in Florida — a sign he continues to see the riotous events on Capitol Hill not as a political liability, but an asset.
But he pulled the plug on that plan late Tuesday, citing familiar grievances with hostile congressional Democrats and the mainstream media, although reports suggest the decision had more to do with a lack of network interest in broadcasting the spectacle live.
That will leave the stage open for Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris, who are expected — much as they did during the 2020 campaign — to hit familiar themes of striving to bring the country together.
Biden plans to “speak to the truth of what happened, not the lies that some have spread since,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday, describing Jan. 6 as “one of the worst days in our democracy.”
He’ll also pay tribute to the D.C. and Capitol police officers who stood their ground in the face of the mob, and talk about the work that lies ahead to fortify American values and bridge the ever-widening ideological gaps that exist in U.S. society.
And he’ll pull no punches when it comes to where the blame lies, Psaki predicted.
“He sees Jan. 6 as a tragic culmination of what those four years under President Trump did to our country,” Psaki said.
“President Biden will lay out the significance of what happened at the Capitol and the singular responsibility President Trump has for the chaos and carnage that we saw, and he will forcibly push back on the lie spread by the former president in an attempt to mislead the American people and his own supporters.”
Two decades after 9/11, the sense of national community to which the Biden administration is aspiring feels like a distant fantasy, said Donell Harvin, a homeland security expert and former intelligence chief with the D.C. government.
“The wound that was created on Jan. 6 was not allowed to heal, and healing it requires national unity — and I don’t see that happening,” Donell told the Post panel.
“The danger here is that Jan. 6 becomes a distraction, and people focus on it too much as a singular event as opposed to a foreshadowing of things to come.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2022.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press