There is widespread agreement that the events of January 6 were very bad. But recently, a new line of thinking appears to be popping up: that January 6 was the equivalent of, or even worse than, the September 11 attacks.
Look in any direction and you will find someone invoking 9/11 when talking about 1/6, especially in the context of the proposed bipartisan commission into the Capitol attacks which seems doomed to failure. For instance, there was George Will on television, intoning that he “would like to see January 6th burned into the American mind as firmly as 9/11 because it was that scale of a shock to the system.” Or two former congressmen in The Hill, writing that “we must address this new wave of anti-democratic violence head-on, with the same vigor we mustered after Sept. 11.” Or, most ostentatiously, HuffPost White House correspondent S.V. Dáte, who has made it his business over the last couple of days to say that 9/11 pales in comaprison to 1/6.
1000 percent worse than 9/11! There’s a bold view.
If you tilt your head to the right and get up on one foot and sort of lean back, you can see where Dáte is going here—as he said in the last tweet, on the most basic level, 9/11 was an externally driven event and 1/6 was an internally driven event, and it’s very bad that an American president was inciting a direct assault on the democratic process.
Yet such an assertion not only discounts, y’know, all the deaths on 9/11, but also everything that led up to 9/11 and everything that happened afterward. It’s pretty difficult to imagine a bigger “threat to the American experiment,” at least in the idealized, mythical form that Dáte is pushing, than the privileged failson of a former president cheating his way into the Oval Office, blithely ignoring the gathering signs that the Islamic fundamentalist group whose very existence was driven by America’s long cultivation of authoritarian maniacs around the world was getting especially angry, and then, after thousands of people had been blown up, launching a string of shoddy, illegal wars based on fiction, setting up a torture and surveillance regime, ramming through a series of attacks on basic civil liberties, short-circuiting all attempts at basic oversight, and unleashing an orgy of bloodshed across the globe. I suppose it’s possible that 1/6 could trigger something similar—the implications of what happened that day certainly aren’t good—but they haven’t yet, and in the meantime, saying that 1/6 was worse just doesn’t make much sense.
You could only seriously say that 9/11 wasn’t a threat to democracy if all you cared about were the topline stats. Elections went smoothly while George W. Bush was in office (except for that one time at the beginning where he stole the presidency), so I guess everything was fine! Hint: everything was not fine. Democracy—real democracy, anyway—does not begin and end on a single day in November, or even a single day in January. It’s not just about elections—it’s about the accountability of the government and the liberties of the people. The post-9/11 era was as overwhelming an attack on democracy as anything that happened under Donald Trump. The Bush administration lied, swindled, blatantly broke the law, and tore through the civil rights people in this country supposedly have, and did it all without an ounce of remorse or regret. Now Bush is a beloved elder statesman, and people on Twitter are pretending like 9/11 didn’t degrade American politics. Come on now.
All the horrors I just listed are also why we need to guard so firmly against the “1/6 is the new 9/11” narrative. We absolutely do not want to react to the Capitol riots like we did to 9/11! The way we reacted to 9/11 was atrocious from top to bottom, thanks in large part to the kind of chest-beating inanities we’re seeing right now about January 6. There’s no doubt that what happened at the Capitol was gravely serious, and the GOP’s decision to go all in on shutting down democracy has dire implications for the future. But the answer to this problem will not be found in a 9/11-style response. It won’t be found in handing over more of our rights and protections to the security state, or in throwing a zillion people in jail. Expanding the Supreme Court, eliminating the filibuster, and restoring some actual voting rights—in other words, investing in real democracy—will do much more to protect “the American experiment” than wishing that the FBI would fix everything. The more people