Just because Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar voted against establishing a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol doesn’t mean he’s not ready to use the po-wer of his office to stage an inquiry into the topic by other means. This week, Gosar, a Donald Tr-ump ally, all but donned a Sherlockian deerstalker hat and wrapped himself in a houndstooth cape in his pursuit of Jan. 6 truth as he cross-examined FBI Director Christopher Wray during a House Oversight Committee hearing.
Gosar claimed that protester Ashli Babbitt had been “executed” by a policeman who had been “lying in wait” for her and demanded to know why her killer had not been named. Did Wray know Babbitt was unarmed? Would Wray approve the release of all surveillance recordings from the Capitol? The release of all surveillance recordings of the suspected pipe bomber, not just clips? Wray backpedaled—the Babbitt killing wasn’t his case, nor did he control the Capitol tapes, and as for the pipe bomber, he offered that release only a clip was consistent with protecting the integrity of the investigation. But Gosar wasn’t really looking for answers as much as he was attempting to portray a governmental cover-up of Jan. 6.
Along with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Gosar is one of the leading proponents of a brand of Jan. 6 revisionism that seeks to unsettle the consensus view that frames the Capitol disturbances as a dangerous uprising. Some theorists of this ilk go so far as to insist the riot was as peaceful as a pasture of lambkins and that it was actually Antifa or “fake Trump protesters” that hammered and bear-sprayed the United States Capitol Police. Gosar says the riots were conducted by “peaceful patriots“ and that “outright propaganda and lies” about the day have been deployed against “law-abiding US citizens, especially Trump voters” to paint them as political criminals. Dancing a similar move, Johnson has advanced the theory that “agents provocateurs” were behind the violence. “Those are people that love this country,” Johnson said in March of the rioters, “that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law.” This week, Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson joined them in Jan. 6 trutherdom with a tangled commentary that proposed that the FBI itself helped perpetrate the riots.
Oh, gawd, you must be muttering to yourself. Not another baseless conspiracy to disarm! Didn’t we just spend seven months proving in the courts and the forums of public opinion that no meaningful amount of voter fraud took place in the presidential election? Now we’ve got to prove that Jan. 6 wasn’t a contemporary COINTELPRO operation or the product of deep anarchists? How long must we suffer?
The short answer is “forever.” The human appetite for alternative, and usually hair-brained, explanations for why events blossomed the way they did can never be sated. Oh, you can battle a poison fruitcake ideology like QAnon to the point that it can be contained in a 55-gallon drum and sealed. You can repel one nutter idea after another—Obama birtherism, Benghazi, Sandy Hook, the Katrina levee breach, Bush’s foreknowledge of 9/11—a new one will pop up to replace it like a target in an arcade. As long as anxieties about an uncertain future persist, people will devise irrational and inconsistent theories and share them. Some of these people will even be members of Congress. We’ll just have to deal with them.
So journalists like MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake, CNN’s Marshall Cohen, and HuffPost’s Christopher Mathias and Ryan J. Reilly, have done the right and necessary thing by providing a rapid-response this week to knock down Carlson’s FBI allegation that an “unindicted co-conspirator” described in Jan. 6 criminal charges was an FBI informant who helped plan the assault. It just ain’t so, Cohen wrote. The news article on which Carlson drew his conclusions were based on a flawed misunderstanding of how an unindicted co-conspirator is defined. “Federal agents acting within the scope of their duties are never considered unindicted co-conspirators because by definition they aren’t conspiring with the alleged bad guys,” Tulane University law professor Ross Garber told him.
One unfortunate thing about these rebuttals is that they will “amplify,” as some of the lefty press critics might say, the original Carlson rubbish. But how catastrophic is that compared to letting the Carlson chicanery go uncontested?
If anything, we should be grateful that the Jan. 6 truthers commenced their theorizing as soon as they did before memories hazed and people began the inevitable process of forgetting exactly what happened. That the truthers are active now, while the Capitol still displays its scars, and we have ready access to the information needed to disprove their theories, gives us a winning chance to beat back Gosarian demagoguery and set the record straight. To cite a recent Thomas Frank column, there’s a liberal tendency to throw a temper tantrum every time unauthorized voices outside the consensus say things that can’t be suppressed by a moderator. Instead of smacking our heads on our desks helplessly, better that we seize the opportunity presented by Gosar and his like to shape a better, more accurate portrait of the events of Jan. 6.
Take Gosar’s protest that we don’t know the name of the policeman who shot Babbitt. Surely he knows that the US Capitol Police work for Congress and that it’s in their power to change the rules that would release the name of Babbitt’s shooter. Rather than hector the FBI director about the shooter’s identity, he should persuade his colleagues to make the Capitol Police more transparent. Furthermore, if Team Gosar is really serious about wanting to know more about law enforcement’s Jan. 6 conduct, instead of asking questions to which he obviously knows the true answers, he should stump for a congressional investigative commission that would probe all the riot’s secrets, not just the ones that favor his interpretation.
As much as we might like to deny it, not every revisionist question is a misguided missile aimed at the sacred heart of truth. Even bad-faith actors can raise relevant questions. For instance, the first accounts of US Capitol Officer Brian Sicknick’s cause of death—that he was killed following blunt force trauma—were doubted in many corners and were later attributed to natural causes by the D.C. medical examiner. If Democrats are serious about a congressional investigation of the riot, they must be prepared to follow where the evidence leads, even if doesn’t flatter their present views. Why did authorities miss the warning signs of the violent attack? Why were forces not mobilized to beat back the attack? What role did Trump play in the passive response? Were the militias working together? Was there inside coordination? How can we prevent a similar riot in the future? And more. As Ryan Goodman and Andrew Weissmann write in The Washington Post, the FBI did know enough about the riot-in-the-making before the fact, but failed to take action. There are greater truths still to be discovered about Jan. 6, and we should take any opportunity we can to pursue them.
If Republicans are serious about their revisionism, these topics should rise to the top of their list of grievances, not vaporous fantasies about how the Jan. 6 riot was really a harmless joy ride by winter tourists through the Capitol. Unless Republicans change their stripes—fat chance of that—we can never expect the current Congress to answer our questions definitively. That leaves it to the press to sort the Jan. 6 sense from the nonsense wherever and whenever it appears. It can be as grimy and odious as emptying a septic tank an ounce at a time, but this is the life we journalists have chosen. Ladies and gentlemen, deploy your teaspoons!
I had a neighbor who emptied his septic tank with a bucket into 55-gallon drums. He fell into one of the full drums while jumping up and down on the lid to seal it.