On Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that Congress would establish a 9/11-style commission to examine the “facts and causes” behind the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. Such a move, even if motivated for the right reasons, is bound to fail. The United States has none of the conditions necessary for a successful truth commission. Pursuing one anyway would yield little benefit and almost certainly preclude undertaking another commission when conditions are right. Congress should wait.
A truth commission focused on Jan. 6 would produce very little. In most countries, the fact-finding objective of truth commissions is paramount. They investigate abuses that have been hidden and denied by those who committed them. They document methods of killing and torture, uncover mass graves, locate missing persons, and identify perpetrators. Such facts bring closure to families and discredit authoritarian actors, making it less likely for them to come to power again.
In the United States, however, most of the facts about the events of Jan. 6 are well known. Trump’s speech at the “Save America” rally was public; the insurrection was broadcast on television for all to see; and those who entered the Capitol shared their exploits on social media. What wasn’t seen before was revealed in the detailed video reproductions of the day presented at Trump’s impeachment trial. A commission would bring to light little new evidence.
Effective truth commissions also provide recommendations for a society to move forward. They may advocate for memorials and reparations for victims, accountability for perpetrators, and other types of reforms such as changes to school curriculums.
Those who participated in the insurrection are being arrested and charged, and Trump was acquitted by the Senate Saturday. Other than revisions to security protocols at government buildings, a commission would probably make no useful recommendations.
Moreover, any facts or recommendations would be discredited and dismissed by those on the right and simply reaffirm the views of those on the left. The increase in information on the Capitol insurrection in the past few weeks has moved the public opinion needle very little. The Republican Party has shown no indication of wanting to truly break from Trumpism. Indeed, state parties have voted to censure many of the Republicans who broke ranks and voted to impeach.
To fundamentally shift public opinion and change the behavior of political parties, a truth commission would need to be viewed by most as nonpartisan. To achieve that goal, most governments have turned to prominent human rights activists, prestigious judges, former presidents who hold national respect, or religious leaders to chair their truth commissions. Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously led the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission following the end of apartheid.
One would be hard pressed to find an equivalent at this point in the United States. Religion is viewed along liberal-conservative lines, former presidents are too associated with their political parties, and the Supreme Court is highly politicized. Without respected leaders, a commission would become another bureaucratic committee with little gravitas. The lesson is in how Pelosi framed the plan herself. Many Americans probably don’t remember that the 9/11 Commission existed, and those who know it by name probably know little else. Former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, who cochaired the commission, is not a household name.
There does need to be a truth commission in the United States, but not about the events of one day. The country requires a greater understanding of the conditions of immigrants detained at the border, the use of unidentified federal agents to break up protests in Portland, Ore., the role of social media and technology companies in fomenting extremist groups, and the many other disturbing developments in the past few years.
But the country is not ready for that type of broader reckoning with the legacy of the Trump administration. Not enough time has passed, and Trump’s hold on the Republican Party is still too strong. At some point, a wide-ranging truth commission will be one of many initiatives needed to bring about national reconciliation. But that moment is not now. The Democratic Party should save a commission for when it can have real impact rather than waste this valuable tool in the heat of the current political moment.
Andrew G. Reiter is associate professor of politics and international relations at Mount Holyoke College.