Opinion | National Security

To get to the truth about Jan. 6, Democrats need to ignore most of the Republicans

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Sometimes seeing is not believing. Or, so it seems as Republicans in Congress go about rewriting history by claiming that the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was really a "normal tourist visit" by "peaceful patriots." Millions of Americans saw the live broadcast, as insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, marauded through the House and Senate chambers, and chanted "Hang Mike Pence."

Yet now the Republican party leadership says that none of that really happened - and they're asking people to believe a series of lies about that day's events.

This week, as the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol holds its first hearings, it is time for Democrats in Congress to say good riddance to Republican colleagues who engage in such denialism.

Over the course of the last several months, Republicans have attacked anyone in their party - for example, Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) who agreed to serve on the Select Committee - who did not go along with such tactics. And they have mounted a sustained campaign to torpedo efforts to investigate the events of Jan. 6.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Democratic leaders in Congress have wasted months pursuing the vain hope that their Republican colleagues would act in good faith in putting together such an investigation. At every turn, Republicans have torpedoed efforts to bring to light who is responsible for the insurrection.

First, Senate Republicans defeated efforts to create a bipartisan commission modeled after the one that investigated the 9/11 terror attacks. They did so despite the fact that Democratic leaders in Congress acceded to Republican demands about the commission's composition, powers, and the deadline for its work.

Then House Republicans opposed using a select committee to perform the investigation.

When it became clear that such a committee would in fact be created, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy nominated several members who are notorious for their fealty to former President Trump, their hearty endorsement of his lies about the election, and their obstreperousness.

After Speaker Pelosi rejected two of the most extreme nominees, McCarthy announced that all of the Republicans he'd designated to serve were withdrawing and would not be party to what McCarthy called a "sham process." He promised that Republicans would "run our own investigation." Such a parallel process will only muddy the waters and water down the immediate impact of anything the Select Committee may find.

That is exactly the Republican goal.

In the face of this record, believing that Republicans can, or will, act in good faith requires the kind of magical thinking that stands in the way of doing urgent national business.

Speaker Pelosi and her colleagues should stop indulging the idea that they can get congressional Republicans to behave reasonably. They must ignore them, get on with the business of both making an accurate record of the events of Jan. 6, and identifying clearly who was responsible for one of the most tragic days in all of American history.

Many Republican supporters of former President Trump in the House and Senate now have fully embraced his brand of shameless lying. Their lies about Jan. 6 are, as Dan P. McAdams Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University notes, the kind that are "so obvious that they often defy the laws of physics, chemistry and common sense."

They now insist - despite extensive evidence to the contrary - that the mob that invaded the Capitol did not breach the House floor. Some have also attempted to deny reality and turn the violent insurrectionists into victims and martyrs.

At the time some Republicans were making outrageously inaccurate statements, more than 440 people already had been charged with serious crimes for participating in the attack. The number charged now exceeds 500. Many of them have ties to right-wing extremist groups. We should also recall that five people died in events related to the attack.

This denialism has gained traction with Trump's Republican base. In a poll taken last month, 47 percent of Republican voters said that "legitimate protest" was an "appropriate term for the U.S. Capitol incident on Jan. 6," while "39 percent of independents and just 13 percent of Democrats" said the same. 

A CBS poll taken this month found that 55 percent of Trump voters believe that the insurrectionists were simply defending freedom; 51 percent call them "patriots."

These views - and what Congressional Republicans are now saying about Jan. 6 - show that too many Republicans are capable, as Alice remarked about Wonderland, of believing "as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

That's why there is nothing the House Select Committee will be able to do, or to find, that will persuade most Republicans that they should believe what we all saw on Jan. 6.

Democrats need to understand this, ignore diversionary tactics, and get on with the serious and important business of making a record on which history can judge what transpired. They should keep their eyes firmly fixed on doing all that is necessary to aid what former Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once called "the moral judgments of history."

Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. He is author of numerous books on America's death penalty, including Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty.

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