Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
On January 6, the day the attackers came to kill American democracy, its defenders thought they, too, might die.
Six months and 21 days later, four of the police officers who stood up against rioters at the US Capitol –who repeatedly told them “Donald Trump sent us,” even as they savaged the officers and threatened to kill them – told their story to the American people and to the Select Committee investigating the events of that terrible day.
It was riveting, disturbing, emotional.
DC Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone, who suffered a heart attack and a concussion, and lost consciousness during the insurrection while being beaten and tased amid shouts of “kill him with his own gun,” strained to maintain his composure as he noted that some members of Congress are downplaying or denying the attack. His eyes burning with emotion, he slammed the table with his hand: “It’s disgraceful!”
It was a powerful indictment of those Republican leaders who now deny the truth of what happened, and in doing so help keep alive a threat against American democracy.
The hearing presented the country with a clear demarcation. On one side of it, we saw new videos of horrifying, unrestrained violence, and heard officers’ harrowing descriptions of what was done to them. On the other, we heard their courageous response: these men – and many more like them, men and women hugely outmatched by a predatory mob – put their lives on the line, and nearly lost them, to defend members of Congress and American democracy.
What the attackers and their enablers did was depressing, frightening, shameful. What the officers did was inspiring, courageous, patriotic. The question now is where the GOP leadership will stand as the United States tries to come to terms with what committee chair Bennie Thompson called an ongoing effort to subvert democracy.
Rep. Liz Cheney, now a pariah in her Republican Party for her clear-eyed revulsion at the reality of January 6, tried valiantly in her opening remarks to persuade the GOP to take the threat seriously. “Will we be so blinded by partisanship that we throw away the miracle of America? Do we hate our political adversaries more than we love our country?” she asked in a piercing appeal.
Cheney vowed that the panel will investigate the insurrection, and “what happened every minute of that day in the White House.”
Americans have already seen plenty of that day’s events. It was all broadcast live as it unfolded. This did not make the officers’ testimony any less spellbinding, and hard to watch. Capitol police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, an emigrant from the Dominican Republic, talked about his sense of duty to his adoptive country, his time serving in the US Army in Iraq, and about thinking, as he was being beaten and crushed, “this is how I’m going to die, trampled defending this entrance.”
The Capitol was “something from a medieval battlefield,” he said. “I was more afraid working at the Capitol than during my entire Army deployment to Iraq.”
Adding to the brutal physical assaults – some using flagpoles still hung with the American flag – that left more than 140 officers injured, the Capitol’s defenders endured verbal abuse. US Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn recalled being called a “F—g n—r” by a screaming crowd, over and over.
He repeated the odious word in the hearing room, striking the audience with the visceral power of the term. No one had ever called him that while he was wearing the uniform, he said. Later, sitting on a bench with another African American officer after the rioters had been cleared out, he recalled, “I began sobbing.”
That the January 6 attack was sickening, the worst of America, is beyond question. But the committee’s purpose is not to merely go over the events of that day. They are there to find out, above all, why it happened.
Dunn recalled receiving a screen shot from a page sent by a friend that morning. It appeared to be a “plan of action,” a call to Trump supporters. “Trump has given us marching orders,” it read, urging people to “keep your guns hidden” and bring trauma kits and gas masks. He would later learn how accurate a portent it was.
Indeed, the picture that would emerge was one of organized chaos. Many of the attackers appeared well-prepared. And they were clear about their objective. They wanted to stop the democratic process from continuing. They wanted Donald Trump, who had just lost the election, to remain president. They made this clear to the officers.
It was, as Officer Gonell noted, an “attempted coup.”
How did that happen? Who was behind it?
In his challenge to the committee, Dunn offered a striking analogy. “If a hit man is hired and he kills somebody, the hit man goes to jail,” he said. “But not only does the hit man go to jail, but the person who hired them does. There was an attack carried out on January 6, and a hit man sent them. I want you to get to the bottom of that.”
This is not just another partisan scuffle, said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (the other Republican on the committee) – though Republican denialists clearly would like to make it so. There’s far more at stake.
Kinzinger, like Cheney, is on the committee because a Democrat, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, appointed them. The GOP refused to participate after trying to install men who have promoted conspiracy theories and the Big Lie that Trump won.
Pelosi did not allow it. She was right. Committee members need to seek the truth, not – as was clearly the intent of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in tapping rabid Trump partisans for the spots – to try to deceive the American people. This is too important.
As Dunn told the hearing: “Telling the truth shouldn’t be hard. Fighting on Jan. 6 – that was hard. Showing up Jan. 7 – that was hard,” Dunn said. “Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger are being lauded as courageous heroes, and while I agree with that notion, why? Because they told the truth? Why is telling the truth hard? I guess in this America, it is.”
“This CANNOT continue to be a partisan fight,” Kinzinger declared. “There is a difference between breaking the law and rejecting the rule of law, between a crime – even grave crimes – and a coup.”
Get our free weekly newsletter
As the committee begins its work, there are two overarching questions. The first is about what exactly happened that day: what role Trump played and why the assault came so close to succeeding.
The second is about Republican officials; will they decide they want to do what’s best for the country and join the search for the truth, wherever it leads and whomever it leads to? Will they live their oath of office, to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” –to safeguard American democracy?
Or will they continue to worship at the altar of Trump, afraid to make any move that might displease the man who nearly tore the country apart – the man who selfishly brought upon the citizens of this nation one of the ugliest days in US history.