Within 20 years, two events shook the United States on single days whose calendar date will forever be linked to those traumas: September 11 and January 6.
Mention either of those dates – September 11 (9/11) or January 6 – and most people will immediately know what you are talking about. The first date refers to the massive terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania in 2001, and the second refers to the invasion of the Capitol by supporters of then-president Donald J Trump in 2021.
The first date marked the worst attack on the American homeland since another day that will “live in infamy,” as Franklin Roosevelt famously put it: the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. And the second date, January 6, 2021, marked the first forced breach of the US Capitol in over 200 years, since August 1814, when the British attacked and burned the building during the War of 1812.
Both the events of September 11 and of January 6 – so different, yet both with such far-reaching consequences – stunned America and astonished the world.
But the way America responded to both was markedly different. After September 11, 2001, America rallied together; after January 6, 2021, it continued its descent into polarized camps.
The threats posed on each day were dramatically different: The al-Qaeda terrorists who flew their planes into the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan and the Pentagon in Washington represented a physical threat to the United States and attacked its body; those who invaded the Capitol to stop the formal acknowledgment of Joe Biden’s election victory represented a threat to the country’s soul, and struck a blow to America’s heart: its democracy.
One year later, the blow from the attack on the Capitol still reverberates.
There are still scores of Americans who believe the 2020 election was “stolen” from Trump, and there are still a frightful number of Americans who believe that violence may be a legitimate means to keep the dreaded “other side” from coming to power.
The country remains almost as badly polarized today as it was a year ago, with politics seeping into everything, from getting vaccinated to wearing masks during the age of COVID. A House Select Committee looking into the events at the Capitol was set up and is conducting investigations, but its membership – seven Democrats and only two Republicans – reflects how terribly partisan the issue has become. Intense legal battles await questions about how high the investigation can reach. Can it go all the way to the top, to Trump himself? The aftershocks from the January 6 earthquake have only just begun.
Pictures from the insurrection – the rioters climbing the outside walls of the Capitol, a shirtless man with a painted face and fur hat with horns strutting in the Capitol’s halls, another man sitting with his boot on the desk of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – are now indelibly etched in the mind, just as are iconic shots of that second hijacked plane barreling into the South Tower on 9/11 as the North Tower was already billowing in smoke.
What happened a year ago on January 6 has shaken both America’s confidence, as well as the confidence of much of the world in it.
America no longer appears as the same shining city on the hill that it once did. The riot in Washington made the US suddenly look vulnerable, a place where even a peaceful transfer of power could no longer be taken as a given. The US – at least since World War II – seemed the one pillar that the world could count on and lean on for support. Suddenly that pillar appeared wobbly.
But that pillar did not tumble over. And that, too, is part of the January 6 story.
The pictures of the rioting inside the Capitol Rotunda were not the only images that emerged from the Capitol that day. There were also the pictures of an unbowed, though visibly shaken, Congress reconvening hours after rioters forced them from the House chamber, and there were also images of a grim-faced Mike Pence, then the vice president, standing at the rostrum in that chamber and certifying the electoral victory of his political rivals Biden and Kamala Harris.
“To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win,” Pence said. “As we reconvene in this chamber, the world will again witness the resilience and strength of our democracy, even in the wake of unprecedented violence and vandalism in this Capitol.” Exactly two weeks later, Biden was sworn into office.
In the heat of the moment, and even a year later, some eulogized – and now are warning – of the demise of America’s democracy. But that democracy has proven, as Pence said, resilient. The incursion on January 6 represented a stinging blow to a democracy that once seemed so rock solid, but it was far from a knock-out blow. Apocalyptic reports of the death of America’s democracy were premature.
That doesn’t mean there is not a pressing need for conclusions to be drawn and for lessons to be learned. The incursion – and the refusal of a big part of the population to recognize its gravity – reveal significant problems that America needs to face head-on. Its checks and balances need to be strengthened, and common ground needs to be found between the country’s bitterly feuding parts.
That the America we knew will remain, the America we will always know is no longer a given. No longer can it be said that America is immune to the types of undemocratic forces seen elsewhere. The mantra “It can’t happen in America” no longer rings true.
There is a lesson in all of this for Israel, and for all democracies as well. If something like the rush on the Capitol can happen in America, a militarily powerful, economically strong and technologically advanced country with a long democratic tradition stretching back nearly two-and-a-half centuries, then it could happen in weaker, less developed lands where the democratic tradition goes back only decades.
If January 6 showed that even America needs to shore up its democracy and not take anything for granted, then the same is true for lesser democracies. Just as September 11 became a byword for the need for vigilance against terrorism, January 6 is now a byword for the need to be vigilant in the protection of democracy. Nothing is a given, no country is immune to undemocratic forces that will severely test and challenge the system – not America, and not Israel.