By Jonathan Nicholson
The broken glass has been swept up and the dusty floors mopped. Even the president many blame for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the damage it caused has had his day in court, with 100 senators sitting as jurors. Now, it’s the historians’ turn.
If they keep to past practice, congressional historians will gather — or may have already started gathering — interviews with people in and around the Capitol that day, the first time since the War of 1812 the building had been sacked.
Building an oral history record of the event through the eyes of firsthand observers may be only the first step. Should physical evidence or artifacts of the attack be preserved? Should there be a physical memorialization of the attack and the officer who died, Brian Sicknick, afterward? Can those efforts continue as the attack is subject to various official reviews and possibly a 9/11-style bipartisan commission?
“Who gets to tell the narrative?” asked Ed Linenthal, former editor of the Journal of American History and author or editor of several books on public memorials and how they were created.
Both Linenthal and Donald Ritchie, who was the Senate’s official historian from 2009 to 2015, said gathering personal testimonies was the right first step.
“We did that in 2001,” Ritchie said. “I think the current historians are using that as a model.”
Both the Senate and House historians’ offices declined requests for comment and a request with Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the chairwoman of the House Administration Committee that oversees the House historian’s office was never acknowledged.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a few weeks following attack, urged Democratic members, especially those in the House chamber who were evacuated just before attackers breached the room, to videotape their recollections.
“It may be difficult for Members to share their stories, but it is important to facilitate an accurate personal record and for the healing process for our Congress and indeed, Country,” she wrote.
And there are physical markers of some previous attacks. An entrance on the Capitol’s eastern side contains a plaque memorializing U.S. Capitol police officers Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson, who died in 1998 following a gunbattle with a mentally ill intruder.
And a seat back with a bullet hole has been preserved from the 1954 attack that wounded five House members. Ritchie, the Senate historian emeritus, said senators who inherited Confederate president Jefferson Davis’ desk liked to point out where a Union soldier used his bayonet on it while at the Capitol during the Civil War.
“Those things are reminders of events even though we’re looking past the events,” Ritchie said.
Figuring out how — or even if — the Jan. 6 attack should be memorialized is a tricky question, Linenthal said.
“It’s so easy, with the best of intentions, to fall into minefields,” he said. “Everything is a razor’s edge issue.”
For example, consider memorializing the people left dead by the attack, he said. They include Sicknick, but what about the two other policemen who died by suicide? Should it include the dead among the Trump supporters, including the Ashli Babbitt, who was shot trying to crawl through a broken window only feet from a House chamber door?
Both Ritchie and Linenthal said a wide net should be cast for oral histories, not just congressional leaders. The 1954 oral history collection, for example, includes a 2005 recollection by a man who was a House page that day.
But Linenthal said that raised the issue of whether leaders of the attack, several of whom are in custody, should also be interviewed, to give insight into the crowd’s motives.
The Jan. 6 attack was unique in several ways, as a violent incident that left several people dead, that will be investigated potentially for some time to come and that took place in and around the building seen globally as a symbol of democracy.
“The Capitol is a symbol, but that also makes it a target,” Ritchie said.
Ultimately, Linenthal said, a commission might be the best way to approach the question of memorializing Jan. 6.
“A memorial process to ask us to really think about this event and what we think it means now would have some value,” he said.
He warned, though, it would not be easy.
“If it’s not difficult, there’s something wrong with the process,” he said.