I was at work on the morning of September 11, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I was sitting in my office in Kingston, New York, a town located about 90 miles north of Manhattan, when a colleague told me about it. I’d initially assumed it was a small plane that had flown into the building by mistake.
Eighteen minutes later a second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Someone made an announcement over the office’s comm system that America appeared to be under attack.
My coworkers and I gathered around a TV in the conference room and watched the news as it unfolded. The South Tower, the second one hit, was the first to fall. With one collective gasp, we watched it collapse in a plume of smoke and debris.
My father had been in that building just minutes before, though I didn’t know it at the time. He’d been on his way down the stairs when the second plane hit, describing to me (days later) how people screamed and ran for the doors. He’d gotten out safely, walked to a nearby seaport, and took a ferry home to New Jersey.
Meanwhile, another plane had hit the Pentagon in D.C. and a fourth hijacked plane crashed in Pennsylvania. I left work, rushing home to be with my husband and 4-month old daughter.
Those early hours of 9/11 were punctuated by confusion. The phone lines, inundated with panicked people, were either down or busy. No one seemed to know anything. CNN ran a constant video loop of the planes hitting the towers, the towers on fire, the towers falling as people lept from windows and smoke billowed.
In those earliest of days, I remember Americans coming together. Every house displayed an American flag. We were, briefly, a nation committed to finding the terrorists — the bad guys — as one people.
Of course it was more complicated than us against them. 9/11 exacerbated hostilities with Arab countries and lead to widespread racism and xenophobia towards Muslims.
But even when you consider all of the terrible things that emerged as a consequence of 9/11, and the fact that the attack literally changed the fabric of American life, I think yesterday’s breach of the Capitol, lead by the sitting U.S. President and carried out by Americans against Americans was far worse.
Desecration at the Capitol
Like many Democrats, I’d been watching with growing anxiety as Trump and complicit GOP lawmakers questioned the integrity of the election process and then the election itself. Trump’s conspiracy theories, his claims of voter fraud, and the doubts he created about the legitimacy of the election set the stage for Wednesday’s failed insurrection.
This time, the threat came from within. It was Trump, his GOP supporters, and cronies like Giuliani and Trump’s repulsive children that stoked an insurgency. They did this using two powerful tools — fascism and cynicism, entertaining the egomaniacal delusions of an unhinged President so they could hold onto power.
Every single one of the 210 Republicans in the House and Senate who either declined to say that Joe Biden was president or outright lied about Trump winning an election he clearly lost are co-conspirators to Wednesday’s act of sedition.
The leaders who instigated the would-be coup were supposed to be the ones protecting our democracy. Instead, they enabled a sick narcissist, allowing him to incite a mob of white nationalists, conspiracy theorists, and self-proclaimed patriots to violence.
Ultimately, 8 Senators and 139 House Republicans supported at least one objection to counting Biden’s electoral votes. These failed members of Congress may as well have lead the rioters to the doors of the Capitol themselves.
The second attack on American soil in my lifetime
And so it was that it happened all over again — an attack on American soil. On Wednesday, January 6th, I watched it unfold, just as I had watched the events of 9/11 — with horror and helplessness.
How far would it go? Would members of Congress be slaughtered? Were there factions of Trump’s army in my own home town? Why wasn’t Trump or anyone at the Pentagon putting a stop to it?
Chaos was exactly what Trump wanted. He was the Osama Bin Laden of Wednesday’s attack. His mob acted on his orders, believing the election had been stolen from him. Trump’s insurgents gathered at the “Save America” rally, waiting for the signal from their beloved leader and they weren’t disappointed.
“All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical left Democrats,” Trump said to his crowd of eager rioters, “We will never give up. We will never concede, it doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.”
He inflamed the crowd with lies about how he won and Biden lost. As the crowd chanted, “Fight for Trump!” he turned on Mike Pence, falsely claiming that it was in Pence’s power to overturn the results of the election and give the presidency to Trump.
“We’re gathered together in the heart of our nation’s Capitol for one very, very basic and simple reason, to save our democracy,” Trump bellowed. He claimed (again) that the media was the enemy of the people. He promised to walk to the Capitol with his mob to “cheer on our brave senators, and congressmen and women.” Instead, he set his supporters loose on his own government while gleefully watching the chaos unfold from a safe distance, like the coward he is.
And so they went, unhindered and unhinged, waving Trump’s flags and following Trump’s orders, right into the chamber itself. When it was over, five people would be dead, including one Capitol policeman. Many more would be injured and the entire nation would be shaken to its core.
And yet, Trump is still president. Pence is apparently ignoring calls from Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats to invoke the 25th Amendment, and everyone’s worried about what further damage an unhinged, vengeful, and delusional President is capable of doing over the next two weeks.
Our darkest truths revealed
9/11 was a terrible moment to live through. It resulted in thousands of American lives lost on a single day and many more military and civilian casualties in the years that came after, but because it came from outside America’s borders, it allowed me to cling to the idea of American exceptionalism. It enabled me to maintain the comfortable conviction that I was one of the good guys, a bastion of freedom and righteousness.
By comparison, the attempted insurrection of the U.S. Capitol on 1/6/21 by a mob of white nationalist Trump supporters was the shameful culmination of four years of blatant hate-filled racist rhetoric. It crystallized the systemic inequities of American life in one, terrible day.
Images and video showed police officers backing away, allowing Trump’s mob to do whatever they wanted. One officer held an elderly rioter’s hand as she descended the Capitol steps and another posed for a selfie with a rioter as the mob surged around them.
And of course there was the smug, entitled face of a man named Richard Barnett — a Trump supporter who broke into Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office, put his feet on her desk, and smiled triumphantly into the camera. He seemed at ease, unworried, and entirely entitled to be there. And he was entitled. His skin was the right color, after all. He carried an American flag, not a BLM sign. He walked out, past police, with a letter he stole from Pelosi’s desk.
I was horrified and dismayed when I saw Trump’s mob breaching the Capitol, but I was also outraged that no one was stopping them. I still have the capacity to be outraged, because I am still naively white.
Where were the armed police and military who’d fired rubber bullets and tear gas at BLM protestors over the summer? Where were the FBI, The National Guard, the armed and anonymous vigilantes who’d shoved people into unmarked vans? Why didn’t the GOP lawmakers diffuse the volatile issue of election fraud before it escalated to the point of “riotous mob” in the first place?
The reality is that Wednesday’s rioters got as far as they did because they are protected by a system that favors their whiteness. The whole world saw that.
For many white people, myself included, racism was a rot that bubbled beneath the surface of America’s “law and order" persona. It was hidden from me, except in the most extreme cases. It was easy to ignore, for the most part, because I benefited from it.
But then Trump got elected, propelled by a platform of bigotry and hate. I didn’t understand how that was possible. I didn’t see the rot until it was impossible not to see it, particularly this year after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Atatiana Jefferson (asleep in her own bed) and so many more Black Americans murdered by police.
Then came the BLM protests and accompanying police brutality. Then the election, won fairly and legitimately by Democrats thanks to monumental effort from Black activists like Stacey Abrams. None of it mattered to Trump and his followers — those white men and women who bore flags that celebrated slavery and hate. Even Trump’s battle cry was innately racist. “Only count the valid votes!" He blathered. What makes a vote valid, I wonder? The color of your skin?
This is who we are, America
People keep saying, “This isn’t who we are. We’re better than this!” Saying this is a denial of reality. It’s dismissive. It ignores the outrage of people who have been trying to shine a light on the deep injustice of racism for over two hundred years. Stop saying it, please, and start listening.
Violent, oppressive, entitled, racist — this is who we are, America. Wednesday’s assault on democracy was worse than 9/11 because it exposed America’s rot for the entire world to see. Those of us with privilege must now take a hard look at our role in Trump’s insurrection. Even if we hate him and didn’t vote for him, our way of life is what allowed him to thrive.
Maybe we aren’t the good guys we thought we were. Maybe we’re the ones destroying America. Our country’s history of hate, bigotry, and complacency enabled insurgents to breach the Capitol. In retrospect, it was only a matter of time.
If we don’t own up to the rot that pervades every corner of this country and actually do something about it, this is who we’ll always be.