Issue Briefs

On January 6 The Unthinkable Was Done

On January 6 The Unthinkable Was Done

Paolo von Schirach

November 20th, 2021

WASHINGTON— The efforts to precisely determine the intent of all who participated in the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 are understandable but unproductive, because by now it is clear that the attack was not planned and executed by a cohesive force that had a clear strategic objective. What we saw on January 6 was a mob, a violent mob. However all those who joined were not of one mind. By now we know that among them there were some genuine insurrectionists, (even if ill-prepared and ill-equipped). There were also many profoundly misguided people who really believed that they were there to protect and save the Constitution threatened by a “Stolen Election”. There were angry people who wanted to break everything. And then there were the curious and the thrill-seekers who thought that it would be cool to go along, to do some something truly unusual and risky they could brag about, after having taken the appropriate number of selfies to prove that “they were there“, right in the middle of the action.

An angry crowd

Rather than a well crafted, military style operation, this was an attack by a large, angry crowd. Hard to believe that these people assaulted the U.S. Capitol because this was part of a carefully constructed plan to overthrow the American Republic. Nothing that has emerged thus far, including what we learned from many court cases in which some of these rioters have been tried and convicted, indicates that these people were part of a well organized conspiracy.

And yet, and yet, what happened on January 6 was an absolutely terrible catastrophe. I repeat: a terrible catastrophe.

The riot and the assault on the Congress of the United States of America is a gigantic, historic disaster, simply because something that should never have happened, not even in the worst case hypothetical scenarios of national crises, just happened. For so many people –all of them Fellow Americans– to believe that the act of defiling the actual physical place in which American law makers deliberate, was a necessary or just a cool thing to do, shows that what we all had assumed (up that day) to be unthinkable was actually done, without much agonizing on the part of the perpetrators.

And they did this, on January 6, in a desperate, deliberate effort to stop the peaceful transition of power from one president to another, after the national elections had been certified by all the relevant authorities –in all 50 states. This mob somehow assumed that in a single stroke they could stop the constitutional process. And they believed they could do this without any legal authority other than their own self-righteousness. Prisoners of a crazy hallucination, most of them really believed that attacking the Capitol and taking Vice President Mike Pence and other congressional leaders prisoners, would be enough to restore justice as they saw it, with Trump reconfirmed as President as the final outcome of their patriotic, heroic gesture.

Blaming Trump is not enough

Sure, we can and should blame Donald Trump, the malignant influencer who instigated the whole enterprise by inventing the “Stolen Elections” story. But deep down the problem cannot be just Trump. A deranged leader can and will say deranged things. The problem is the millions who believed him then, and still believe him –to this day. The real problem is the thousands who came to Washington that day, obeying Trump’s command, while many among those who descended on Washington DC that day shared the crazy belief that the outgoing President who had just lost the elections should be reinstated by force, since all other efforts had failed.

The fact that such an attack on the U.S. Congress, America’s parliament, could be not just thought about but that it actually took place, provides the irrefutable evidence, the sad graphic illustration, that America is badly broken. Maybe it is not irreparably broken, But certainly the January 6 riots indicate that America’s civic culture, the invisible glue that binds this Nation, is severely damaged. The additional fact that most Republican leaders –including scores of Congressmen and Senators who did run for cover on January 6 while the Capitol was under attack– to this day refuse to clearly condemn this outrage reinforces my pessimism.

A sacrilegious act

Let me clarify my thoughts on this. The U.S. Capitol was, is and should continue to be regarded by all Americans as an Icon, a National Treasure. The Capitol is not just another government building in Washington, DC. It is the most visible, the most recognizable structure in the Capital of the United States. It is the physical symbol of this Republic. It embodies our Constitution, founded on the principle of popular sovereignty exercised via representative government. The Capitol is where the law-makers meet and deliberate. It is the Republic. It is America.

Attacking it implies no longer recognizing the legitimacy of the US Government, its constitutional rules and procedures. Therefore, January 6 was not just a crazy and illegal political act; it was a sacrilegious act. Whatever the complex personal motives of the many individuals who participated, what they all share is that all of them did the unthinkable. They violently broke into the most revered building in America and thought nothing of it. In so doing they demonstrated that they no longer believe in the values of this country.

And this is the real tragedy, because this Republic will have a future and thrive only if the citizens believe in it.

The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the author.

Paolo von Schirach is the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC. He is also the Editor of the Schirach Report.