Comment: How do we commemorate what happened Jan. 6?

When we’re divided on whether the events at the U.S. Capitol were insurrection or tourism, what do we honor?

By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post

On Jan. 6, one year after enraged hordes of Trump supporters tried to overthrow a just and fair presidential election by storming the U.S. Capitol, the country will remember that horror with speeches, prayers and candlelight vigils. But in what should be the clarifying aftermath of a harrowing event, the fog remains as dense as it has ever been.

A day that should be one of unifying commemoration promises to be one in which the country remains at odds over precisely what happened and what it means to be American.

If the country is marking anything, it is the intractable division of our own making.

It’s hard to know what any given person will be memorializing this week. Is it the anniversary of the moment when democracy was mortally wounded? As we limp toward 2024 and another presidential election, perhaps these are just democracy’s last gasping hours. Or was that chapter of chaos and terror a testament to democracy’s resilience; evidence of its ability to survive a devastating assault from within? Has the country grown stronger in the places that cracked during the onslaught or irreparably weaker?

President Biden will speak to the country on Thursday morning and a significant percentage of Americans still do not believe that he is the legitimately elected commander in chief. The House of Representatives will host a moment of dignified silence, which will belie the bellicose nature of our politics; one in which falsehoods and pettiness have evolved into campaign strategies rather than distractions. There are announced vigils in Washington, Florida, Arizona and several other states; not for those who were injured, killed or terrorized by the storming of the Capitol but for those who have been jailed for doing the storming. One man’s Jan. 6 insurrectionist is another man’s Jan. 6 political prisoner. The truth isn’t elusive. It’s a victim of willful ignorance.

The gravity of Jan. 6 calls to mind other dire moments in which the foundation of this country has been shaken and tested. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the destruction and loss of life focused the attention of the country. And in the aftermath, the nation grieved together; it coalesced around a singular understanding of the events. The country recognized heroism as an act of selflessness and patriotism as a defense of America’s promise. That’s no longer true.

In these fractured times, the police who defended the Capitol in the midst of a riot, and who did so with little regard to their personal safety, have had that reality, that painful truth, distorted and dismissed by lawmakers whose lives were safeguarded by the officers’ courageousness. Patriotism has become a cover for anger, disappointment, selfishness, paranoia, meanness, racism and cowardliness. A few moments of quiet reflection are a poor defense in the face of such emotional and physical violence.

The rituals of commemoration should offer collective catharsis. They should be a balm to the body politic. But when the pain comes from within, everything becomes more complicated. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was a deadly betrayal, and one wishes there were lessons that could be taken from that devastation to help the country sort through this one. But there is a singular distinction that makes that nearly impossible; there weren’t myriad vigils in honor of the bomber. Timothy McVeigh’s treachery was not recast as something deserving of admiration. He was not called a harmless tourist or a gullible victim of misinformation who just went a little bit too far.

The burning of Tulsa’s Greenwood District in 1921 was an unholy act of racism. The truth about the massacre of Black Tulsans by their white neighbors was one that was left to fester, its lingering impact unacknowledged by the broader community. The lies and coverups were part of America’s methodically constructed system of racism, which some people insist does not exist.

Last year, the country finally turned its gaze to this wound; one caused by hate. Biden became the first president to visit the historical Tulsa site. He spoke of justice and healing; he met with survivors. There has even been talk of reparations. It only took 100 years.

Much distinguishes Jan. 6 from other occasions this country has marked with ceremonies and speeches. This was not a day when the state rose up to protect its citizens from antagonists. No outside invaders penetrated our borders and clambered over a wall only to be met with stalwart resistance. The brutality came from within and it’s hard to hack off part of an infected limb or cut out a cancer without causing even more damage to the whole. The House impeached former president Donald Trump for inciting the mob, but the Senate didn’t convict him. Now, Congress gamely tries to conduct a post mortem of the insurrection, which was documented on video in real time by the rioters themselves. And the revisionists are doing all they can to pretend like nothing at all really happened or that what happened was akin to a stage play.

How do you commemorate anger and ignorance? How do you make peace with denial? Marking Jan. 6 should mean acknowledging the events that unfolded and making strides toward understanding them. But the connective thread that once seemed to link us together so securely — the generosity embodied by heroism and patriotism, the beauty of facts — has frayed.

In those moments of reflection, in the pauses between the president’s words, in the midst of prayer, we hope for solace. But we will count ourselves lucky if the peace isn’t disrupted by the sound of America’s damaged threads finally snapping apart.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press. Follow her on Twitter @RobinGivhan.

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