Politics by Other Means

Laura Blessing | January 12, 2021

I have been in Washington, DC, for the two major attacks of the past generation, on September 11, 2001, and on January 6, 2021. On 9/11 I was a college freshman. A sleepy morning narrowed quickly into a hyper-focused state as classes were cancelled and people became glued to their televisions. Around my dorm, I could hear perhaps six different languages, as students reassured family members that they were safe. The indelible picture, for me, was of a band of fundamentalists who had attacked a pluralistic society.

The rush of the reporting takes on a new meaning if you’re in the target area. A lead that turned out to be false during 9/11 was that there were reports of a car bomb outside the State Department. Friends lived in the dorm across the street. Would they be safe? The Pentagon was hit, with either the White House or the Capitol the likely destination of United Flight 93. To this day, when I see planes returning to Reagan airport, they always look like they are flying too low.

To say that the United States has taken this attack seriously would be the understatement of a generation. It has indelibly shaped our politics; our subsequent actions and their ripple effects have shaped major regions around the world.

Last Wednesday, a group of insurrectionists, spurred on by the President of the United States and consistently stoked by lies of a stolen election by media outlets and elected officials, attacked the Capitol building, attempting a coup. I was returning to DC that day, having visited friends. Because returning via train to Union Station, blocks from the Capitol, felt dangerous, my friend’s husband drove me home. My friends are Afghans. They wanted to keep me safe. They wondered at the thugs’ fantasies of revolution—if they knew what such violence were really like, they would never seek it.

The rush of information, where no amount feels like enough, was the same. I texted my friends in DC, starting with journalists and staffers in Congress. Some were in the Capitol or the surrounding congressional office buildings. Would they be safe? Reports of pipe bombs at the RNC and DNC, accurate this time, were mere blocks from where other friends lived. Both times I would know congressional staffers who familiarized themselves with gas masks, feeling their sense of safety at work shattered. Like 9/11, advance reports had not sufficiently prepared us for an attack. Unlike 9/11, the criminals were able to get much farther in their mission, endangering the country. It’s impossible to not see disparate racial treatment as part of this problem. Many officers acted bravely, and many more stood at the ready to faithfully protect their country, being called in too late after failures at the top of the chain of command. But the overall response was systemically flawed, with images that will become infamous: one officer posing for selfies with the insurrectionists and others waving terrorists in after opening barricades.

In politics we learn the lesson of the last time. But what example will we set here? The President is unlikely to resign. Invoking Section Four of the 25th Amendment would require a 2/3rds vote by both chambers of Congress, but because Congress has 21 days to consider the matter all that is required is the beginning of the process: the Vice President and most of the Cabinet must make Mike Pence President. The GOP congressional speeches after the attempted coup largely did not reveal a party looking to remove the President, with most continuing to state that there were serious problems with the election and two-thirds of the House Republican Conference voting to decertify election results. The 25 th Amendment is an unlikely remedy, but impeachment is an even less likely path to removal. Speaker Pelosi will have a difficult enough time getting her razor-thin majority to vote to impeach the President, for which a majority vote is required; she reportedly has these votes. The 2/3 rds vote in the Senate needed to remove the President will not happen, with a trial only potentially occurring after he leaves office. As for Members of Congress who played a role, expulsion requires a 2/3 rds vote by their chamber, and censure or other lesser admonishments require a simple majority in the chamber. Neither is likely to happen—at most, prominent actors such as Sens. Cruz and Hawley may receive a reprimand. We should not shirk in our protection of our democracy, but neither should we incriminate by association. Nearly seventy-five million Trump voters did not vote for a coup.

Violent extremists can come in any color, speak any language, and worship any creed. The group that raided our Capitol came minutes from attacking Members on both the House and Senate floors. Crowds erected a noose and chanted to “hang Mike Pence.” In many ways this attack is more serious than what happened on 9/11. We are in danger of not treating this with the gravity it deserves. We are in danger of learning the wrong lesson.

Laura Blessing is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

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