Memory  /  Argument

Preserve (Some of) the Wreckage

We must remember the very real challenges to the preservation of our democracy.

On the Sixth of January, 2021, hundreds stormed the U.S. Capitol building, disrupting the constitutionally mandated certification of the vote by the Electoral College. With democratically elected leaders at home, and around the world, watching in dismay, President Trump tweeted, “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!” While I disagree with the former President on so many things, his concluding sentence is right. We must remember.

The insurrection of the Sixth of January has now become an important moment in the history of American democracy, an event that is worth memorializing in the spaces of the Capitol building itself. Not only does the building house the offices and chambers of the legislators who work every day to realize the mandates of the U.S. Constitution, it is also a museum with as many as five million annual visitors seeking a deeper understanding of American democracy. Do they visit because the building symbolizes American democracy? Yes. But to walk through those halls is also to understand that democracy is both an ideal and a practice, one that unfolds in space and time, in buildings and places. As the symbolic and functional epicenter of our democracy we have a duty to preserve the physical evidence of the Sixth of January. For legislators and visitors alike, broken windows and stolen objects must remain in place as unsettling evidence, jarring reminders of our democracy’s fragility.

We must remember the armed hordes that scaled the walls and swarmed into the Capitol. We must remember that a white supremacist marched the Confederate battle flag through the halls of the American Congress that defeated that very same Confederacy. We must remember that another wore a “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirt making explicit his neo-Nazi allegiances. We must remember that conspiracy theorists and their followers invaded legislative offices, destroyed public property, and gloated about it on social media. We must remember that many of our democratically elected members of Congress, fearing for their safety, took cover and were defended by officers against armed insurgents, while others were evacuated from the building. And we must also remember that those same elected officials insisted on returning to those very halls of power to fulfill their constitutional duty.

But our memory is short; in the era of instantaneous social media and a rapidly churning news cycle, in an environment where information echo-chambers dominate, we can be quick to forget. This day will certainly be the topic of study for decades to come. It will be the subject of popular and scholarly books and college lectures. It will be the source of legal action and court cases. The first arrests suggest that some justice will be done. But that is not enough.


January 6th

While the mob violence lasted only a few hours, the ideologies that drove it, and the structures that enabled it, continue to shape the nation's future. Here, historian Louis Nelson reflects on the challenge of remembering January 6th without letting its perpetrators shape our collective memory.