With each passing year since Sept. 11, 2001, the pain and vulnerability I felt watching live footage of jet airliners crash into the twin towers and Pentagon have dulled.
In a recent visit to the United 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, however, those powerful emotions came flooding back as I recalled the massive death and devastation wrought by the terrorist attacks.
That tragic day would have been inestimably worse had United Flight 93 hit its intended target, the U.S. Capitol, instead of going down in a Pennsylvania field after passengers confronted the hijackers in the cockpit. Seeing the Capitol's stately white dome – global symbol of democracy – in flames would have been beyond comprehension.
Millions watched the events of 9/11 unfold live on television, and we were soon deluged with data – names of victims; numbers of missing; heroism of first responders; diagrams of the World Trade Center; nationalities of the hijackers; how they entered the U.S. and learned to fly; and, finally, the masterminds behind the plot.
Most Americans agreed on these basic facts about what happened Sept. 11. For a brief time, political differences were put aside as our leaders grappled with how to recover and respond. The Patriot Act was passed, and revenge was exacted as we entered two wars that lasted decades and cost trillions.
Especially significant was Congress' creation of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission to investigate the attacks. Its recommendations forever changed our way of life, strengthening national borders, enforcing immigration laws and enhancing security for air travel. Americans accepted these often-restrictive changes and relinquished personal freedoms in a united effort to protect our country and prevent another foreign attack.
Although the U.S. Capitol was spared destruction on 9/11, that would not be the last attack. On Jan. 6 of this year, our nation's citadel of democracy was the scene of a very different kind of assault – one carried out not by foreigners but by so-called “homegrown” terrorists from across the country, including at least one man with ties to Fort Wayne.
These armed, flag-waving, red cap-wearing individuals descended on Washington, summoned by an ousted president, energized by him at a profanity-laced rally, then urged to march to the Capitol to stop Congress from officially certifying the results of the presidential election held two months earlier. The angry throng breached barricades, scaled walls, overwhelmed Capitol security guards and stormed the building, spending several hours wreaking havoc inside as lawmakers were evacuated to a secure location.
Again, Americans were transfixed as they watched events in real time on their phones, computers and TVs. We saw an officer crushed between doors; a woman shot and killed by a Capitol officer while being hoisted into a window; offices trashed; paintings and sculptures vandalized; and, most horrifying, a noose and gallows, supposedly for the vice president, erected on the Capitol grounds. The chaotic scene looked like footage of a hostile coup in some far-off place, yet there it was in our own capital.
Why compare the traumatic events of Sept. 11, 2001, with those of Jan. 6, 2021? Despite their obvious differences, it illustrates how people interpreted what they saw through vastly diverging lenses. After 9/11, Americans agreed generally on a set of facts about what happened and why. But after Jan. 6, stressed from a global pandemic, racial justice protests and a controversial election, we couldn't even muster that semblance of unity.
Americans fell into two camps, driven by political party.
One side concluded the men and women were insurrectionists, incited by their leader to subvert the democratic process, violently if necessary. The other side examined the same facts and said they were patriots – tourists, really – acting on their own volition and simply exercising their First Amendment right to assemble.
We must study and understand exactly what happened not only to help mend this rift but also to prevent another attack.
But sadly, partisanship has caused the facts to become twisted beyond recognition. In the Senate, an attempt to form a 9/11-like commission was blocked. In the House, two nominees were Jan. 6 “deniers” and ultimately barred from serving. A House select committee is, however, moving forward with an investigation that will likely take months, a daunting challenge in the face of the growing public disconnect.
Whatever you believe happened that fateful day, we should all demand that our elected officials of both parties support an independent effort to uncover the truth. That is the only way to safeguard our Capitol, a symbol of our grand, messy experiment in democracy and our continual efforts to form a more perfect union. God willing, it will stand majestically for centuries to come.
Faith Van Gilder covered 9/11 and its aftermath as a journalist at The News-Sentinel. She lives in Huntertown.