January 6 should be remembered as a story of triumph, not trauma
January 6, 2021 is, as many have already asserted, a day we will never forget. Between the prolonged electoral vote count, the inciting remarks by President Trump, Rudy Giuliani and others and – of course – the mob attack on the United States Capitol, numerous observers describe the events as something out of a “banana republic.” But now that the dust has settled, the question becomes how we will remember this day. Will this day go down as a traumatic rock-bottom moment with which Trump supporters will have to reckon for perpetuity? Or as a moment where the vast majority of Americans rejected violence and recommitted to democracy? How the incoming administration chooses to tell and commemorate January 6 will determine which story will be remembered.
One thing that purported “banana republics” can tell Americans is that political events – violent and nonviolent – can leave long-lasting marks on segments of the population and, if not addressed and resolved through public commemoration, will lead to violence.
When the party that founded the modern Republic of Turkey, the Republican People’s Party, lost its first elections in 1950, its leadership and supporters were stunned. Little did they expect the periphery-based, conservative Democrat Party, which they had belittled, to win in a landslide. But rather than admit defeat and commit to a period of self-scrutiny, the losing party – representing much of Turkey’s founding elite – resorted to claims about unfair elections and portrayals of the voting public as ignorant and misguided. Left with a depiction of the election loss as a trauma, rather than a normal democratic turn of events, the secular Turkish public maintained a sense of illegitimacy and injustice over the following decades. Based on this sense of injustice, many secularists welcomed the series of coups d’état of the following decades, believing that these undemocratic acts were necessary to restore their rightful rulership of Turkey.
Another lesson for Americans might be that, even in the direst circumstances, political leadership has a choice and a responsibility to shape the way an event will be remembered. Israel’s remembrance of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s 1995 assassination is a case in point. At the climax of a long period of rightwing incitement against Rabin’s peace process with the Palestinians, a religious Jewish rightwing Israeli shot the prime minister as he was leaving a Tel Aviv peace rally. For some of Rabin’s most outspoken supporters, the murder was not just the work of a radical individual or a fringe extremist group. For them, it was the collective fault of the Israeli religious right and of one of Rabin’s most outspoken critics – future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Leading leftwing politicians, intellectuals and media outlets called for “reckoning” and “soul-searching” on the religious right. Rabin’s commemoration thus depicted the assassination as a violent act perpetrated by the rightwing on the leftwing, even going as far as specifying that the killer was a religious Jew on the original inscription on the Rabin memorial. The early choices leftwing leaders made about Rabin’s commemoration thus alienated Israel’s religious right, where many of its members held moderate views, leading to resentment and cynicism from the latter.
Ironically, President Trump seemed to be aware of the mechanics of collective memory when he urged his rioting supporters to “remember this day forever.” Just as most viewers at home will remember this day as a national embarrassment, so will many on the right remember this day as a day of unresolved defeat. If political leaders allow Wednesday’s events to be publicly memorialized as a lasting mark of shame on all Trump supporters – or, worse, on Republicans at large – they risk cultivating a generations-long grudge that can lead to further violence.
Instead, the narrative could focus on the American public’s almost unanimous rejection of violent solutions to democratic challenges and the remarkable energy with which Congress returned to counting the electoral votes. Making this a story of triumph, rather than trauma, will bolster faith in democracy for generations to come.
Shai M. Dromi is a lecturer on sociology at Harvard University. He has researched and published on politics and collective trauma and is the author of “Above the Fray: The Red Cross and the Making of the Humanitarian NGO Sector.” Follow him on Twitter @DromiShai.