One year ago today, terrorists attacked the U.S. Capitol. The threat to democracy did not come from a foreign power or a cell of operatives embedded in this country. It came from within, from Americans who were goaded by lies into fomenting an insurrection.
For hours, the democratic process to certify the election of Joe Biden as president was delayed. Five people died during or shortly after the attack. Rogues occupied the Senate chamber and broke into congressional offices. Protesters roamed the halls, with some carrying Confederate battle flags, weapons and zip ties.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump watched on TV.
Hours earlier, repeating lies that Biden’s election was fraudulent, Trump had told supporters at a rally: “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore” and “you’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength and you have to be strong.”
As the riot engulfed the citadel of democracy, Trump ignored pleas from family, staff and members of Congress to call for an end to the insurrection. For more than three hours, he did nothing, abdicating his role as commander in chief and his oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution.
As The Washington Post summarized: “Twenty-five minutes into Trump’s silence, a news photographer was dragged down a flight of stairs and thrown over a wall. Fifty-two minutes in, a police officer was kicked in the chest and surrounded by a mob. Within the first hour, two rioters died as a result of cardiac events. Sixty-four minutes in, a rioter paraded a Confederate battle flag through the Capitol. Seventy-three minutes in, another police officer was sprayed in the face with chemicals. Seventy-eight minutes in, yet another police officer was assaulted with a flagpole. Eighty-three minutes in, rioters broke into and began looting the House speaker’s office. Ninety-three minutes in, another news photographer was surrounded, pushed down and robbed of a camera. Ninety-four minutes in, a rioter was shot and killed. One hundred two minutes in, rioters stormed the Senate chamber, stealing papers and posing for photographs around the dais. One hundred sixteen minutes in, a fourth police officer was crushed in a doorway and beaten with his own baton.”
Embracing a bastardized definition of patriotism, rioters — and Trump — attempted to destroy the United States that they profess to love. More than 700 people, including two Clark County residents, have been charged with crimes relating to the attack. At least 150 have entered guilty pleas, and seven defendants thus far have been sentenced for felony crimes.
The insurrection eventually was quelled and Congress proceeded with certifying Biden’s election. One week later, the House voted to impeach Trump for an unprecedented second time; in February — after Trump had left office — the Senate voted not to convict him.
Democracy survived the attack of Jan. 6, 2021, but its survival was not assured. If the insurrection had succeeded in preventing the constitutionally mandated certification of a free and fair election, where would we be? What was the end game of an attempt to overthrow the government? More important, where will we be the next time a narcissistic demagogue is committed to weakening and breaking down democratic norms?
Democracy is fragile and must be protected. The terrorist attack of one year ago demonstrated that fragility, and Americans must never forget how close our system of government came to crumbling.