Recalling Jan. 6: A national day of infamy, half remembered

FILE - Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

NEW YORK — Beneath a pale winter light and the glare of television cameras, it seemed hard not to see the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot for what it was. The violent storming of the Capitol by Donald Trump supporters bent on upending the election of Joe Biden was as clear as day: democracy under siege, livestreamed in real time.

Yet a year later, when it comes to a where-were-you moment in U.S. history, there is far from national consensus.

A Quinnipiac poll found 93 percent of Democrats considered it an attack on the government, but only 29 percent of Republicans agreed. A poll by the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that about 4 in 10 Republicans recall the attack — in which five people died — as violent, while 9 in 10 Democrats do.

Such a disparity in memory may be inevitable in our hyper-polarized politics, but it’s striking given the stark clarity of Jan. 6 at the time and in its immediate aftermath. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said then that “the president bears responsibility” for the attacks. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., then the majority leader, said: “They tried to disrupt our democracy. They failed.”

But since that day, separate versions — one factual, one fanciful — have taken hold. The Capitol riot — the violent culmination of a bid to delegitimize the 2020 election and block its certification — has morphed into a partisan Rashomon, the classic Japanese film about a slaying told from varying and conflicting points of view. Indeed, the act of remembering can be a highly mercurial thing — particularly when deep-seated political views are involved.

“We keep using terms like post-factual, but it almost feels like there’s this national psychosis or amnesia about what happened a year ago,” says Charles Sykes, the former conservative Wisconsin radio host and founder of the website The Bulwark. “It’s not just that we’re two nations. It’s as if we live on two different reality planets when it comes to the memory of Jan. 6.”

Nations remember the way people do: imperfectly. Neuroscientist Lisa Genova, author of Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting, describes how even the most searing memories are edited each time they’re revisited. An original memory is replaced with a 2.0 version, a 3.0 version and beyond.

“Outside influences can sneak in every time we revisit and recall a memory for what happened. So for these collective memories, we have a lot of chances to revisit them,” says Genova. “Depending on your political point of view, the news channels you watch, what this meant to you, this memory is going to have a different slant based on the story that you tell yourself.”

And a lot of people have been working hard to chip away at the memory of Jan. 6. Rep. Andrew S. Clyde, R-Ga., has described the siege as like “a normal tourist visit.” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., has claimed the rioters were leftist militants “masquerading as Trump supporters.” Trump has continued to insist that the election — Biden won by a wide margin, with scant evidence of fraud — was the real insurrection.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson has attempted to frame the Capitol attack as a “false flag” operation, orchestrated by the FBI. Carlson created a series on the riot that aired on Fox News’ subscription streaming service.

To counter such misrepresentations, other documentary projects have tried to capture Jan. 6 in rigorous, methodical detail. Jamie Roberts’ HBO documentary Four Hours at the Capitol was motivated in part to firmly establish a visual chronology of that day, with the rampage following Trump’s incitement to his followers to “fight like hell.”

Roberts interviewed witnesses and participants. Some of those in the mob praised his film only to later complain after seeing Carlson’s series.

“I had people who were in the film texting me saying: ‘Why the hell didn’t you put that in your film? You’re liars,’ ” Roberts said. “What I was hoping with the project was to put some very hard and fast facts together with people who can tell the story from a witness perspective. But for some people, it’s still not going to reach them.”

Alexander Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard and author of Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?, believes a full-fledged investigative commission, like the one that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, might have fostered more national consensus on Jan. 6. In May, Senate Republicans used their filibuster power to block the creation of such a commission. (A House committee is to soon make public some of the findings from its six-month investigation.)

Instead, many Trump supporters have adopted the former president’s denial over the 2020 election. In the last year, Republicans have passed dozens of laws in 19 states to restrict voting. More election battles loom in the 2022 midterms and beyond.

“It’s obviously dangerous because it becomes precedent,” Keyssar says of the Capitol riot. “It has become a prism through which events are viewed. The prism for a large segment of Republican adherents is that you can’t trust the outcome of elections. If you can’t trust the outcome of elections, that will be true in the future as well. It becomes, as the great historian Bernard Bailyn once said, ‘a grammar of thought.’ ”

Instead of receding into the past as an anomalous threat to the heart of American democracy, the history of the Capitol riot is yet to be fully written. Some projects are ongoing. To tell the story of Jan. 6, the Capitol Historical Society is creating an oral history. Some of the stories — like those of staffers who have since quit government and returned home — are particularly haunting for the society’s president, Jane L. Campbell.

Meanwhile, the Capitol remains closed to the public. Where tours once regularly paraded, now only those with an appointment may enter.

“When people say ‘Oh, it’s never been this bad,’ well, we did have a civil war. That was bad. That was truly bad,” Campbell says. “But during the Civil War, Lincoln made a decision to finish the dome of the Capitol. We tell that story a hundred times over.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

(10) comments

Grace Trujillo

Why don't we start by charging the leader that encouraged this action.

Start with charging Donald Trump for displaying his bad sportmanship, disrespect, uncompassionate actions, and lies that he has been stating. How can people allow a person that doesn't care about our people or our wishes for our county to serve in the highest position.

Grace Trujillo

The Republic Party is a disgrace. For supporting a man (Trump) that doesn't have the compassion, respect or dignity that our country deserves. Shame on you all for supporting a person that questions humanity. He has divided the country and is all about himself. I do not want a President that does not think of our people of the United States of America. We should have seen the red flags when he started tweeting his negativity. Back someone that is worthy of the position, because he surely doesn't deserve to sit in such a prestige office. Get your party together. It is a disgrace.

Cleve Spence

The tragedy of 6-Jan-2021 none of the leaders of the coup have been held accountable! And the republican party has give a thumbs-up to the seditious, insurrection against our capital and our democracy!

Mike Johnson

And after a year, with the partisan Democrats in charge of the DOJ, of the 700+ people charged, most are charged with misdemeanors, only a small fraction are for felonies, and there have been no charges of sedition or domestic terrorism, and of course no one except the police had any firearms at the incident. How serious does that sound?

Joe Brownrigg

Erroneous, Mike. Firearms and explosives were carried by the insurrectionists. Several pipe bombs were also found.

I agree with you that more serious charges should be levied at the planners, financiers, and leaders, rather than simply the low-hanging fruit.

Mike Johnson

According to NPR, only 3 people were charged with firearms offenses, and the authorities said they were not involved with the Capital breech, only police had firearms in the building. Some guns were found in people's cars and trucks in the parking lot, but not used in the riots. No shots were fired in the Capital except by the trigger happy cop who murdered an unarmed woman without warning. The pipe bombs were small, amateurish, did not go off, and were not placed in places where many could have been killed, just a show piece with no real seriousness, like the entire day.

Mike Johnson

Some good ways to commemorate this newest national holiday:


MIKE....think MARK Twain.

Mike Johnson


Mike Johnson

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“There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."

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"Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it."

"An honest man in politics shines more there than he would elsewhere."

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