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January's Capitol riot wasn't 9/11. Here's why that distinction matters.

How we think of these events determines how we respond.
Image: Pro-Trump Protests over Electoral College Vote Certification
Protesters clash with police outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

Many Americans were rightly gripped by the harrowing House committee testimony of law enforcement officers who defended the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 while Congress was counting the electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election. It raised important questions about how those events should be described and prevented in the future.

Many Americans were rightly gripped by the harrowing House committee testimony of law enforcement officers who defended the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

There can be no excuse for breaching the Capitol, ransacking congressional offices, assaulting police officers, hurling racial invective or trying to disrupt the constitutional process, all of which happened that day. And on Tuesday, the ugly and menacing nature of the crowd that stormed the people's house was laid bare. It shouldn't have happened and must not be permitted to occur again.

But deterrence doesn't require hyperbole. Indeed, some critics have gone so far as to compare the Capitol riot to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "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," said the venerable conservative columnist George Will. Many have called for a "9/11-style commission" to investigate the pro-Trump mob's penetration of the halls of Congress (the Democratic-led committee investigation is a substitute for the commission, which most Republicans refused to vote for and with which it will be compared.)

Others still argued that Jan. 6 was worse — "1,000 times worse," according to political journalist S.V. Date. The attack was worse because it came from within, said former Republican strategist Matthew Dowd. The rioters posed a bigger threat to democracy than 9/11 because former President Donald Trump's political activities are ongoing, argued USA Today writer David Mastio.

There are commonalities, of course. Both were targeted acts of political violence. Both traumatized the people who directly experienced the events, as well as millions of others who watched them unfold on television. Both involved important national symbols and government buildings. Both require responses punishing those responsible and attempting to ensure that they never happen again.

But 9/11 would surely be remembered differently if the Twin Towers hadn't come down and the hijackers themselves, like the pro-Trump rioters on Jan. 6, had made up most of the death toll. Nearly 3,000 civilians were murdered on 9/11, men, women and children.

Congress did eventually meet and certify Joe Biden's election as president a few hours after the attack inside the Capitol.

Why quibble about whether one terrible event is as bad as another? It doesn't take much imagination to foresee how the Capitol riot could have spiraled even further out of control, leading to the deaths or captures of the vice president or lawmakers. "I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room," Officer Michael Fanone testified Tuesday. "Too many are now telling me that hell doesn't exist or that hell actually wasn't that bad."

But how we think of these events determines how we respond. And even in the case of 9/11, when we had every right to pursue justice and preventive reforms, not everything we did in the ensuing weeks and months was good: a war in Afghanistan that has gone on too long, a war in Iraq that should never have been waged in the first place, the torture and indefinite detention of suspects with questionable evidentiary standards and worse treatment, mass warrantless surveillance of Americans of all backgrounds and discrimination against Muslims.

Without adequate safeguards, the reaction to Jan. 6 is even more ripe for overreach. We are dealing with a mainly domestic set of people in an era of extreme partisan polarization. We are unlikely to go to war over the Capitol riot, but we may increase our surveillance of American citizens and ensnare a lot of ordinary people who subscribe to widely held views. Some progressives have already raised these concerns.

Without adequate safeguards, the reaction to Jan. 6 is even more ripe for overreach.

People have the right to believe eccentric, even factually wrong things as long as they behave peacefully. The rioters who laid siege to the Capitol did not behave this way, but many septuagenarians posting pro-Trump memes on social media do, even if they also espouse unfounded claims about the 2020 election.

A common argument made by those who say the Capitol attack was worse is that 9/11 unified the country, while Jan. 6 left it divided. The Capitol riot was the product of internal divisions that already existed, while the 2001 terrorist attacks were an external threat. Responding to an outside threat with a declaration of war is a debatable reaction; the war on terrorism is an inherently dangerous model for dealing with American citizens.

We already know the appetite for overreach exists. Mastio of USA Today argues that Republicans who seek to retake Congress or voted Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., out of party leadership indicate that conservatives are a greater threat to democracy than Al Qaeda. A top New York Times Justice Department reporter mused in a since-deleted tweet about Trump supporters' being "enemies of the state," making no obvious distinction between violent insurrectionists and 74 million voters. The risk that this will be intermingled with partisan politics is real.

Already, activists whose views in no way resemble those of the far right have sounded the alarm about what Biden's domestic terrorism program could look like in practice, as the White House promises it will be enforced without regard to ideological motivation. And one day, whatever new powers the national security state accrues to combat these threats will be wielded by a future president whose ideology may look very different from that of the current occupant of the Oval Office, perhaps including Trump himself.

The terror of Jan. 6 was sufficiently bad to require no embellishment or inapt comparisons to past atrocities. The answer is not to do nothing, but to do no harm.