A symbol is anything that stands for, or represents, something else. Symbols encourage people to go beyond the original purpose and create a connection that can cross psychological boundaries, cultures or politics. Anything can be a symbol, even a building or part of a building. Symbols of sacred American institutions were violated on both Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 6 of this year. In a symbolic sense, the Jan. 6 insurrectionists succeeded where the hijackers failed when it comes to the goal of attacking and interrupting the workings of Congress.
Even if the 9/11 hijackers had succeeded in reaching the Capitol or the White House, as was the apparent mission of the terrorists aboard Flight 93, American democracy would have been rattled to its core, but it would have survived. The Jan. 6 mob was able to penetrate the walls of the Capitol, violate the people’s house and disrupt the course of democracy, albeit for a short time.
Our democracy withstood the attack but not without suffering a major blow.
President George Washington laid the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol in the building’s southeast corner on Sept. 18, 1793. The U.S. Capitol has been built, burned, rebuilt and restored since its inception. The Capitol building is the meeting place of our nation’s legislature — a working office building as well as a tourist attraction. The Capitol is far more than a building; it is a symbol. A symbol of our representative democracy.
The rotunda is its very heart. Italian American artist Constantino Brumidi painted the Apotheosis of Washington on the dome of the rotunda during the Civil War. The painting depicts George Washington surrounded by symbols of American democracy and innovation. There is only one inscription in the rotunda: the Latin motto E Pluribus Unum meaning “from the many, one.” The rotunda serves as a ceremonial center where state funerals have been held for presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, distinguished members of Congress, military heroes and prominent citizens.
On 9/11, hijackers took control of west-bound United Airlines Flight 93. One of the hijackers, Ziad Jarrah, reset the plane’s autopilot, turning the aircraft around to head east toward Washington. The 9/11 Commission Report concluded that Flight 93’s target was Washington, where both the Senate and House were in session. “Jarrah’s objective was to crash his airliner into symbols of the American Republic, the Capitol or the White House,” said the 9/11 report. “He was defeated by the alerted, unarmed passengers of United 93.”
After the plane turned around, 13 passengers started making phone calls, where they learned of the first two attacks. Brave passengers and crew who were pushed to the back of the plane by hijackers decided to fight back to try and regain control of their airplane. Their struggle ended with the crash of the plane in a reclaimed strip mine near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. All 40 passengers and crew were killed, but they prevented the plane from reaching the hijackers’ target.
The Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville is the final resting place for those 40 heroes. The National Park Service’s website has a page dedicated to the Flight 93 Memorial, which says: “The story of Flight 93 is a story of hope, courage, and unity. When confronted with the urgency of their situation, the passengers and crew of Flight 93 chose to act heroically and made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. These 40 heroes made a democratic decision to fight back against terrorism, defending our freedom and preventing even further loss of life.”
It is impossible to know, but it seems as if the 40 heroes understood the symbolism of our nation’s capital.
While the attacks on 9/11 and Jan. 6 cannot be compared, we should not dismiss the damage Jan. 6 did to our democracy. Many supporters of the former president do not want to call what happened on Jan. 6 an insurrection. By definition, that is exactly what happened.
An insurrection is defined as an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government. Those who attacked the Capitol sought to overturn the 2020 presidential election by interfering with the mostly ministerial joint session of Congress assembled to count the electoral votes and certify President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. The violent mob attacked law enforcers, broke windows and doors, stole items, urinated in the halls and hunted for members of Congress. Outside, protesters built a gallows chanting “Hang Mike Pence.” Some of this desecration took place under the very rotunda that calls Americans to unity.
Cornerstones, like the one Washington laid on the southeast corner of the Capitol building, can be part of a building’s foundation and can be symbols at the same time. America’s elections are the cornerstone of our representative democracy. Trust and legitimacy in our elections cannot be rebuilt with bricks and wood, but we owe it to those 40 souls to figure out how to restore it.
Lynn Schmidt is a columnist and Editorial Board member of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. firstname.lastname@example.org