There is a faction of the news media that seems stuck on January 6. They need to get some perspective. And political hucksters who claim that the Capitol riot was worse than the September 11 attacks deserve all the derision they get.
One symptom of the January 6 fixation is a recent Vice articleentitled, “‘So, So Angry’: Reporters Who Survived the Capitol Riot Are Still Struggling.” A sampling:
The emotional scars are still there. Six months after their office was attacked, the Capitol Hill press corps is grappling with how to cover the insurrection’s fallout, as well as its impact on them personally and professionally. Some reporters who were there won’t go back into the building. A number have sought therapy to deal with the trauma. One longtime Capitol Hill reporter opted for early retirement shortly after living through the riot. Many still aren’t sleeping well.
Matt Laslo is especially bitter, and notes that he is now unwilling to talk to some Republican lawmakers:
Laslo has struggled with moving past the day. “It’s my office, the building I love most in the f***ing world. I used to call the Capitol my girlfriend. I’ve devoted 15 years of my g**damn life to that building,” he said, choking up. “Now? Instead of being there every day, I’m there once a month. I don’t want to be there.”
The piece has been widely shared by the Capitol Hill press corps.
Somewhere, Ernie Pyle (reporter killed in World War II) and Welles Hangen (NBC reporter killed in Cambodia in 1970) may be rolling over in their graves.
Let me get two things out of the way up front. First, I do not doubt that this was a genuinely traumatic event, and that people have had difficulty processing it. There were few fatalities or serious injuries, and fewer directly at the hands of the rioters, but nobody inside the building knew that until after it was all over. People felt besieged and endangered in their normal workplace, because they were besieged and endangered. Journalists properly told their stories of that harrowing experience, including our own John McCormack. And everyone works through that sort of thing differently, with different needs for time off or, in some cases, therapy or prayer. I was on the street a few blocks from my office in One World Trade Center on September 11 when the second plane hit. I had panic attacks for months. Some people were fine. Some seemed fine for a while, then had serious issues later.
Second, I bow to nobody in my view that the Capitol riot was indefensible, that it involved lawbreaking and both real and threatened violence, that it targeted and disrupted an essential process in the peaceful transition of power, and that Donald Trump bears moral and political responsibility for it. Trump was responsible not only for his incendiary speech but for a two-month course of conduct consisting of (1) claiming, loudly and falsely, that the election was stolen; (2) continuing to contest the election result through every available forum for two months; (3) not limiting his contest of the election to the legally legitimate channels for an election contest; (4) focusing attention on the in-person gathering of the entire Congress and the vice president to count the electoral votes on January 6 as a point of vulnerability to mob pressure; and (5) specifically violating his oath to the Constitution by the attempt to get the vice president to unilaterally prevent the counting of electoral votes.
I said at the time, and still believe, that Trump was properly impeached for this and should have been convicted. I said at the time, and still believe, that the maximum available punishments should be used against everyone who broke the law that day, in order to show for all time that this should never be repeated. I said at the time, and still believe, that a great many societies in human history would rationally have reacted to such an event by placing the heads of Trump and the rioters on pikes around the Capitol as a warning to others.
All that being out of the way: Get over yourselves. The Capitol Hill press corps are not the first people to deal with a traumatic event and be expected to keep doing their jobs. This was not the worst of those, and some of those other events were also wholly or partly the work of political actors. Ask any of us who went through September 11. Ask doctors and nurses who had to keep going back to the emergency rooms and intensive-care units over the past year and a half. Lots of people worked other frontline jobs during the pandemic. We ask cops, firemen, and soldiers to pick themselves up and keep going all the time. Even throughout the worst waves of politically stoked anti-police violence last summer — on top of all the routine exposures to death and danger that cops face — we still asked every cop to be prepared at any time to act with Solomonic wisdom and emotional impartiality in making life-and-death decisions in a split second that cannot be reversed. Small businesspeople in places such as Minneapolis had their life’s work destroyed by rioters, and most of the sympathy of the national political press corps was with the rioters. People go on, because that is what adults have always done.
Can people go back to work in the Capitol? Nobody seems to care much about the folks at the Family Research Council going back to work in their building after a left-winger tried to shoot the place up after it was targeted by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The press has focused comparatively little on the people who work at the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee, the recipients of pipe bombs on January 6 whose culprit has yet to be identified.
People went back to work in the Pentagon on September 11 itself. Don Rumsfeld, in his autobiography, described heading straight back from the scene of the attack into his office that morning, and continuing to work even as smoke from the crash scene that destroyed a wing of the building was still forcing its way in:
As people arrived on-site to assist, I turned back toward my office to gather what additional information I could. On my way I picked up a small, twisted piece of metal from whatever had hit the Pentagon. . . . The smoke from the crash site was spreading through the building. The smell of jet fuel and smoke trailed us down the corridor. Upon arriving back in my office, I spoke briefly with the President . . .
Before long, the smoke in my office became heavy, so along with several staff members I headed to the National Military Command Center in the basement. A complex of rooms outfitted with televisions, computer terminals, and screens tracking military activities around the world, the NMCC is a well-equipped communications hub. Despite the fires still raging in the Pentagon and sprinklers dousing wires and cables with water, our links to the outside world were functioning, although sporadically. . . . The vice chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], General Dick Myers…had been on Capitol Hill. . . . Upon learning of the attack, he rushed back to the Pentagon and joined me in the command center . . .
As we were working at the Pentagon, smoke from the crash site was seeping into the NMCC. Our eyes became red and our throats itchy. An Arlington County firefighter reported that carbon dioxide had reached dangerous levels in much of the building. The air-conditioning was supposed to have been disabled to avoid circulating the hazardous smoke, but apparently it took some time for it to be shut down. Myers suggested that I order the evacuation of the command center, and he argued that the staff would feel bound to remain there as long as I stayed in the building. I told him to have all nonessential personnel leave but that I intended to keep working there as long as we were able. Relocating to any of the remote sites would take at least an hour of travel and settling in, precious moments I did not want to lose if we could keep working in the Pentagon. Eventually we moved into a smaller communications center elsewhere in the building . . . which had less smoke. As the day went on, the firefighters stamped out enough of the fi re so that the smoke in some portions of the building became tolerable.
There are three overlapping reasons why national political reporters may be inclined to excessively magnify and dwell upon January 6. One, ever since Watergate, there has been a journalistic culture among the national political press of making reporters the hero of the story. It was not always like this; Robert Capa was not the story when he landed with the first wave on D-Day, and Ernie Pyle was not the story on Okinawa. But for people who spent four years comparing themselves to firefighters running toward danger whenever Trump tweeted at them, the allure of making this a story about peril to the press is irresistible. Two, of course, a lot of the Capitol Hill press corps is young — young enough that September 11 is a childhood memory and that “embedded reporter” evokes campaign coverage, not David Bloom and Michael Kelly riding to their deaths in Iraq.
Third, of course, is simply the temptation to keep January 6 alive as a never-ending partisan club in order to preserve the Trump-centric voter dynamics of the 2020 election and avoid contesting the 2022 elections around the current president and the current Congress. That undoubtedly is why unprincipled political operatives seem devoted to the “January 6 was worse than September 11” talking point. Never mind that 3,000 Americans died; the important thing is that Republicans won the 2002 and 2004 elections on the strength of George W. Bush’s response to the September 11 attacks. For Democrats still sore at that — and in particular for Democrats who were Republicans then and see money to be made now off January 6 — the desire to repeat that has overwhelmed their basic sense of decency and proportion.
So it is that we get Matthew Dowd, a onetime Bush pollster who has long since returned to his original partisan team with the Democrats, telling Joy Reid on MSNBC that “Jan. 6 was worse than 9/11 because it’s continued to rip our country apart and give permission to people to pursue autocratic means.”
Steve Schmidt of the Lincoln Project, another ex-Republican strategist who left the party years ago, claimed that the January 6 attacks were “profoundly more dangerous than the 9/11 attacks, and in the end, the 1/6 attacks are likely to kill a lot more Americans than were killed in the 9/11 attacks including the casualties of the wars that lasted 20 years following it.”
I have to wonder who is far enough gone in their paranoid bunkers to believe this sort of thing, yet these guys say it out loud without shame or embarrassment. Our system has been through worse. In 2017, a Bernie Sanders supporter tracked down congressional Republicans practicing baseball and fired 70 rounds at them, seriously wounding House Republican whip Steve Scalise. Had things gone down just a little differently, numerous Republican senators and congressmen could have been killed. Nobody treats that today as an important event. Joe Biden has called January 6 the “worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War,” when it was not even the worst act of violence within the Capitol in Biden’s own lifetime: In 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire inside the House chamber, wounding five congressmen.
Then again, maybe the Biden White House has already changed its mind, given that just today, press secretary Jen Psaki described new state election laws as “the worst challenge to our democracy since the Civil War.”
The Capitol riot was both bad and indefensible. Property got destroyed, important democratic processes were interrupted, people got hurt, and people died. But not everything that is indefensible is equally bad. It callously cheapens the death and mass trauma of September 11 to compare the two events for partisan gain, fundraising, or ratings. It would be futile to appeal to the sense of shame of people such as Dowd and Schmidt, but one hopes that some of our national press corps would be embarrassed by their naked opportunism.