The season is almost upon us of lachrymose memorials to the victims of 9/11. As a nation we choke each year as the anniversary approaches. We can talk about the heroic firefighters and cops, those first-responders who that day sometimes made their last response. We can recount the lists of the dead and the daring of some survivors. A great many Americans remember in vivid detail how the horrors of that day intersected their own lives. What we don’t have is a strong sense of what 9/11 meant and still means to the nation.
Even in this age of declining historical literacy, we have a ready sense of the defining importance of more remote occurrences: Plymouth Rock, Valley Forge, Gettysburg, D-Day. These days, we should add 1619, Wounded Knee and the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. Those names and dates — and many others — instantly conjure a larger story about who we are. But 9/11 is oddly opaque. We sense it is significant but it is like a mountain shrouded in morning mist. We know it’s there but we can’t see it.
That may be because the terrorist attacks that day were inspired by militant Islam and executed by Muslim fanatics. It is bad manners to say that aloud or to make much of it. We still say that ‘Islam is a religion of peace’, and we censure those who dissent as guilty of ‘Islamophobia’. Our national commitment, for so it appears, to multiculturalism precludes any frank assessment of the irreconcilable elements between Western liberal democracy and the Islamic Middle East.
As the Taliban move in for the kill in Afghanistan, we once again turn away from the hard questions about how to sustain American pride in the face of people who abhor us and what American values mean if the world meets our ideals with contempt. One answer to these questions is a counsel of capitulation. Let us admit that we are now and always have been a rotten nation made up of hateful, conniving people who only pretended to be good.
That answer has always had a few cynics in its corner, but it has become the presiding doctrine of the American left, a development which is itself one of the defining consequences of 9/11. At some point in the months following the attack, as the momentary sense of national unity cleared, the left began to adopt the ‘we-deserved-it’ narrative. Not everyone was as outspoken as Ward Churchill who called the office workers in the World Trade Towers ‘little Eichmanns’ or the Revd Jeremiah Wright who preached a sermon shortly after 9/11 that said of the attack, ‘America’s chickens are coming home to roost’. But in a quieter way, these ideas took hold. President Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq crystalized the left’s narrative that America’s bellicosity was the problem. We had more to fear from domestic mistreatment of innocent Muslims than we had from Muslims bent on mass murder.
This muddled view has birthed a generation that has nothing but misgivings about American virtue and American power. And it lies in the background of a brand new attempt to sacralize a new date: January 6, 2021.
The left is on a troubled quest to turn the rally-cum-riot at the Capitol that day into another Wounded Knee, a My Lai Massacre in the making, the equivalent of Emmett Till’s murder. It is no coincidence that in the run-up to this year’s Fourth of July celebrations, the venerable TIME magazine published ‘21 Lessons from America’s Worst Moments’. Self-reviling bathos is today’s noble journalism.
But there is considerable difficulty shoehorning January 6 into this narrative. No one was killed but the overly eager but unarmed Ashli Babbitt, shot point blank by a Capitol Hill Police officer as she tried to enter the Speaker’s Lobby. I know of no one who excuses Babbitt’s presence there. She and hundreds of other protesters had crossed the line into riotous behavior. Our stalwart legislators were, by most accounts, cowering in fear. And some apparently trigger-happy plainclothes cop decided it was time to exercise some deadly force.
In the immediate aftermath of the riot, reports circulated that Capitol Hill Police officer Brian Sicknick was ‘killed by a blow on the head from a fire extinguisher’ hurled by one of the protesters, and a man from Chester, Pennsylvania, Robert Sanford, was arrested for throwing a fire extinguisher. Sanford, incidentally, is a retired firefighter, a member of the profession celebrated as heroes in other contexts. He was released from jail on March 2, pending trial. Officer Sicknick died, but not from any injuries in the riot or in the line of duty. He died of a stroke on January 7 — though it is easy to believe that the stress of the day before played some part.
In any case, his supposed martyrdom was a necessary ingredient to the story of the Capitol Hill riot as a deadly insurrection, and Sicknick’s funeral was turned into political theater.
As NPR headlined it, ‘Brian Sicknick, Capitol Police Officer Slain By Mob, Lies In Honor In Rotunda’. President Biden and Jill Biden came to pay their on-camera respects.
Sicknick was not killed by any mob, nor were any other police officers at the Capitol on January 6. This is a problem for those who would like to elevate the riot to a signal event in American history. How signal? On April 28, President Biden called it the ‘worst attack on democracy since the Civil War’. Verbal precision is not Mr Biden’s strength, but this was hyperbole of high order. To make it stick, Democrats have tried their best to increase the drama and inflate the body count.
The dramaturgy consisted of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Houser Select Committee hearing on July 27, when four officers, Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, Michael Fanone, Daniel Hodges and Harry Dunn provided Munchhausen-esque accounts of their nightmarish experiences on that fateful day. Their testimony was broadcast live and convinced the convincible that the insurrection was led by bloodthirsty and all-but-unstoppable fiends bent on overturning the Constitution.
Their narratives reinforced the story told in the New York Times 40-minute video, ‘Day of Rage: An In-Depth Look at How a Mob Stormed the Capitol’, put together by a team consisting of Dmitriy Khavin, Haley Willis, Evan Hill, Natalie Reneau, Drew Jordan, Cora Engelbrecht, Christiaan Triebert, Stella Cooper, Malachy Browne and David Botti. It is masterful story-telling which assembles and edits some of the abundant footage of the riot to lay it at the feet of President Trump. And, of course, blaming Trump is the sine qua non of January 6 mythologizing.
The other element of this is relatively new. Inflating the body count takes the form of attributing deaths of police officers to the riot though they died long afterwards of causes that are remote from the events of that day.
The new story is captured in a USA Today headline, ‘US Capitol combat shows why police deaths by suicides are sacrifices in the line of duty’. Some of these cases are more plausible than others. Nine days after the riot, Washington Metropolitan Police Department Officer Jeffrey Smith, who had been beaten by rioters, committed suicide.
Several days after that, US Capitol Police officer Howard Liebengood killed himself. Then in July two more died at their own hands, Gunther Hashida and Kyle DeFreytag.
Police are known to die by suicide at a higher rate than members of any other profession, and it surely not implausible that a traumatic event might aggravate depression or other conditions that would lead someone to act of self-destruction.
The police departments involved might have been well advised to do better counseling. But when a man dies by his own hand, regardless of the aggravating circumstances, he bears the responsibility — and only he really knows the cause.
The fact remains that the January 6 riot was a riot, not an insurrection. Those who talked big beforehand — watch the New York Times video — were full of imaginary grandiosity. It goes around. They were unarmed. Their stunt got out of hand, fed by the fury of the crowd, the fecklessness of the police, and the finagling of the authorities who declined urgent requests for better security.
All of this was tragic — for Ashli Babbitt. It was tragi-comic for the nation, as a ragtag group of bizarre figures such as the QAnon Shaman and an oddball assortment of radicalized protesters blundered their way into the Capitol with no idea of the consequences, followed by tourists taking selfies.
But in this new stage, we have moved from drama to farce. The Democratic leadership is desperate to keep alive the fiction that America teetered on the edge of Civil War that day.
Convincing its loyalists that this story is fact rather than fable requires ever greater imposition. Hundreds of people connected — most in very minor ways — to the riot are languishing in jail, facing unknown charges and seemingly interminable detention. The result as I have written before is a growing sense among conservative populists that the rule of law has truly broken down. Their wrath is rising — which is the subject of my forthcoming book Wrath: Enraged America.
The irony is that the Democrats’ relentless exaggeration of what happened on January 6, 2021 might succeed in giving us the breakthrough realization of what happened on September 11, 2001. We will see that our leftist elite hates America and fears and despises that broad swath of the American people who reject their betters.