The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The select committee’s aim is truth. Naturally, Republicans are up in arms.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) delivers opening remarks on July 27 at the first hearing of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In an early morning temper tantrum, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) tried desperately to shift attention from the Jan. 6 insurrection and its enablers to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), arguing Democrats were ill-prepared for the attack. It was a classic case of blaming the victim.

McCarthy, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and others can flail away and try to change the subject, but McCarthy’s decision to yank members off the committee will have devastating consequences for the MAGA cult’s attempt to rewrite history and embrace the violent insurrectionists as some sort of heroic figures.

We got a preview on Tuesday of what a professional, sober pursuit of the truth will look like with the opening session of the committee. Even before the hearing, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) warned, “This is absolutely not a game. This is deadly serious.” She added, “There are some in my party, including Leader McCarthy, who continue to act as though this is about partisan politics. I think it’s really sad. I think it’s a disgrace.”

The committee’s chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), pledged in opening remarks to follow the facts and avoid partisanship. In matter-of-fact tones, Thompson reiterated what we know about the violent insurrection. "History will remember your names and your actions,” he told four police officers who defended the Capitol. He added, “Efforts to subvert our democracy are ongoing, and a major part of the select committee’s work will be to find ways to eliminate that threat.”

As Thompson methodically defended the peaceful transfer of power, he stood as a refreshing contrast to the hysterical, lying Republicans. He repeated the admission from one of the insurrectionists that they came to the Capitol to overthrow the presidential election results. “A peaceful transfer of power did not happen this year,” Thompson said. “It did not happen. Let that sink in for a minute.”

Video and audio of the attack presented at the hearing, much of it never shown publicly before, was jarring and horrifying. With the passage of time, even the most honest observers might have forgotten the terror that the marauders inflicted. Seeing such images again underscored the moral insanity of those who would dismiss the violence of that day. How could Republicans be so craven, so dishonest and so disloyal as to side with the disgraced former president and the mob that attacked the Capitol and tried to hunt down Pelosi?

Cheney pleaded with the public to watch the videos and recalled the failed attempt to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the attack modeled on the 9/11 commission. She declared: “We must know what happened here at the Capitol on Jan 6. We also must know what happened every minute of that day at the White House.” No wonder Republicans are quaking in their boots. She urged the committee to issue and enforce subpoenas and warned against efforts to “whitewash” the Jan. 6 uprising. Cheney plaintively asked: “Will we adhere to the rule of law? ... Will we preserve the peaceful transfer of power? Do we hate our political adversaries more than we love our country and revere our Constitution?”

The tone was mournful and nearly majestic — a rebuke to the unhinged rantings of Republicans and a right-wing media machine.

Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, an Iraq War veteran, offered among the most piercing descriptions of Jan. 6 to date. He told the committee he was more afraid at the Capitol than he had ever been in battle overseas. He recalled how he believed he would die and heard the screams of other officers attacked. “To be honest, I did not recognize my fellow citizens when they stormed the Capitol,” he said. He recounted how the crowd called him a “traitor” and declared he should be “executed.” In describing the violence and threats, he reminded us of the monstrosity of those who would call this a “loving” crowd.

Equally compelling was testimony from D.C. police officer Michael Fanone, who detailed his experience of being brutally attacked that day, including repeated shocks from a stun gun that resulted in a heart attack and traumatic brain injury. “I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room. But too many are now telling me that hell doesn’t exist or that hell actually wasn’t that bad,” he said. “The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful.” He slammed the table for emphasis.

D.C. police officer Daniel Hodges, provided his own moment-by-moment account, correctly calling the insurgents “terrorists.” Finally, Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn detailed the racial epithets thrown at him and other Black officers.

The committee’s work will be more emotionally disturbing than many expected. It will provide a definitive account to rebut the lies and the conspiracy theories. Absent Republican disrupters, we may finally learn all there is to know about this vicious assault on our democracy.