"I would like to see January 6th burned into the American mind as firmly as 9/11 because it was that scale of a shock to the system," George Will, the dean of Washington conservative columnists, said on ABC's This Week. His comment encapsulates the case for the commission congressional Democrats (and some Republicans) would like to create to investigate the Capitol riot, which is often compared to the commission that probed the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The comparison between the two events is flawed. What happened on Jan. 6 was dangerous and could have been disastrous. The Capitol breach should not be justified or trivialized. But we would think very differently about 9/11 today if the attacks had failed to bring down the towers and the hijackers themselves had made up most of the death toll. Still, the federal response to that atrocity is instructive here — partially in terms of what not to do.
Some of the post-9/11 reforms surely improved our government's capacity to prevent future terrorist attacks and made Americans safer. But the response also included a war in Afghanistan that has gone on far too long and another in Iraq that never should have been launched. It involved the passage of the badly misnamed Patriot Act, the unconscionable use of torture, and the mass warrantless surveillance of Americans in violation of the Constitution.
The last bit is relevant here. The zeal to root out political extremism, while not without merit, can easily ensnare ordinary citizens if not pursued with restraint. The Reuters/Ipsos poll showing majorities of Republicans believe baseless claims about the 2020 election is disturbing and former President Donald Trump continues to fan the flames almost daily. But it is also an indicator of how quickly an overly broad definition of extremism could capture large numbers of voters.
There are widely held conspiracy theories about every presidential election of the past 20-odd years, with the exception of 2008. People are free to believe eccentric, even inaccurate, things as long as they act peacefully. The rioters at the Capitol did not, but their guilt should not be extended to grandpa on Facebook.
Understand and prevent another Jan. 6. Do not overreach and erode the constitutional norms that were under assault that day.