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Is a 9/11-Style Investigation Into the Insurrection Even Possible?

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Is a 9/11-Style Investigation Into the Insurrection Even Possible?

“Most commissions don’t succeed,” he warns. “Most of them fail, and their recommendations are not passed or considered—they go up to sit on the top shelf of a bureaucrat’s dusty office, ignored into eternity.”

The 9/11 Commission stood apart, he says, because of its culture of bipartisanship, respect and clear-eyed approach to the facts at hand. It convened at a moment Congress shared a strong sense of purpose to fight the external threat—an atmosphere “conducive to exchange and debate, not sound bites and tweets.”

Today, things are different: The attack is already seen through partisan filters, and any new commission would be meeting in a Washington where disruption itself is a political brand. “If any one of these people appointed to the 9/11 Commission were bomb throwers or people who just wanted to disrupt the process, that by itself could easily have derailed the entire process,” says Roemer. “It only takes one member to do that.”

For all that, Roemer absolutely believes a new commission is necessary—and in the long run, could be more important than the one he sat on, perhaps “the most important commission ever.” He suggests a broad scope, looking not only at the January 6 attacks, but “how we try to ensure the peaceful transfer of power, what do we do to make sure that conspiracy theories and lies don’t permeate our democratic system of information getting to people, and how we take bipartisan steps forward to strengthen our democratic institutions.”

What can a 1/6 Commission learn from the 9/11 Commission? Is it possible to have a broadly accepted bipartisan consensus about the facts of the case? And can political allies of President Donald Trump be relied upon to participate in good faith?

To sort through it all, POLITICO Magazine spoke with Roemer this week. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.

Before serving on the 9/11 Commission, you were a member of the House for 12 years. You know the Capitol well. What was your reaction when you saw the insurrection last month?

In my public service journey, I’ve had three searing events that scorched my soul.

The first was as a fifth-grader: After having stayed up all night to cheer on my hero, Bobby Kennedy, in the California [1968 presidential] primary, my parents woke me up the next morning to tell me that he had been assassinated.

Second, was as a member of Congress: I was on Capitol Hill in a meeting with several members—including Nancy Pelosi—talking about a leadership race when the first plane went into the [World Trade Center], and we eventually had to scatter out of our office buildings into the streets, where our cellphones didn’t work; we later learned that the Capitol was a target.

The third was January 6. I was riveted to the TV, watching insurrectionists and terrorists ravage our citadel of democracy and threaten custodians, staff members, members of the House and Senate, as well as the vice president of United States—threaten to assassinate them. This was Americans attacking our own family.

That’s a big difference: The insurrection was an attack by Americans—one inherently tied up in partisan politics—and there isn’t anything similar to the post-9/11 sense of bipartisan unity. Do you think that changes the way that a 9/11 Commission-style investigation into the insurrection would work? How should it approach its mission?

There are many similarities between 9/11 and the January 6 domestic terrorist attack on the United States. There are myriad differences as well, and it’s vital to distinguish between the two.

One of the similarities is that both were extremely violent, in some ways unexpected, planned physical attacks on our government institutions. On 9/11, it was Wall Street, the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol, though [United Flight 93] was brought down by brave patriots in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, before it could hit its target in Washington; January 6 targeted the Capitol. The number of law enforcement casualties on 9/11 was one of the highest in our country’s history; January 6 caused horrific and catastrophic damage to our law enforcement community.

This question about a January 6 commission’s remit and mission is an essential one, and something I’ve tried to express to the Speaker [Nancy Pelosi], the speaker’s staff and people interested in this [commission] legislation: We need to get to the bottom of the events of January 6. How was it planned? How was it carried out? Why did intelligence miss it, or why wasn’t intelligence reported? What did law enforcement miss? Was there a role—and what was the role of President Donald Trump or members of Congress? What were the roles of social media, of disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories leading up to it, planning it, sharing it and inspiring people to be involved?

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New Virginia PAC forms to diversify state’s political landscape

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New Virginia PAC forms to diversify state's political landscape

As Rathod sees it, these are “the candidates most receptive to diversity in their staffing, not only within the campaign, but if they become governor, how are they going to staff — especially at cabinet and senior level positions — [with aides] that are more reflective of the diversity of the commonwealth,” he said.

Lack of diversity within campaigns has been a longstanding issue in both Democratic and Republican politics. While the 2020 cycle saw a historically diverse number of women and racial minorities pursue public office, those managing their races did not reflect the sea change. People of color represent less than 1 percent of all political consultants. There are also a number of structural barriers to entry — long hours, low pay an exclusive networks — that make it more difficult for potential staffers of color to join campaigns.

It’s part of the reason why both Rathod and Kasey formed the PAC, which also includes a fellowship program they hope will create a corps of young political operatives of color who can quickly join a campaign or governors’ office in a top position.

“Most of the time, on campaigns and in politics in general, these positions go to people who already know people in their organizations, and so it leaves a lot of people out,” Kasey said. “We want to create networks of support.”

The group is launching in the heat of Virginia’s crowded and diverse gubernatorial primary. Three Black Democrats, Jennifer McClellan, Jennifer Carroll Foy and Justin Fairfax all announced plans to run, as has former governor Terry McAuliffe, who is the highest-fundraising candidate in the race thus far.

Their ultimate goal, Kasey said, is for the state’s political landscape to become so diverse that groups like theirs are obsolete.

“There’s sort of two Virginias that are fighting each other right now,” Rathod said, referencing the state’s history of electing the first Black governor in the country juxtaposed against the events of Charlottesville in 2017. “And a lot of the old Virginia still kind of permit permeates the politics in the commonwealth.”

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You Need to Take the Religious Left Seriously This Time

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You Need to Take the Religious Left Seriously This Time

What I know about trauma is that when you’re in the middle of a trauma, it’s much more difficult to process it than it is once even a modicum of safety has been established. I anticipate that as the pressure of the pandemic begins to lessen, the reality of the trauma that we’ve been through [will sink in]. We have some pretty hard days ahead of us as the fact of what’s happened begins to come out of us and come into the public. You think that it can’t get much worse than it has been, but in fact, some of the hardest days with respect to conflict and pain are ahead of us, as we get the space to grieve and mourn and feel the rage of what we’ve been through.

You referenced coming to terms with your grandparents’ participation in a lynching. I can imagine that would be a horrifying, gut-churning revelation — one most people would not be inclined to talk about if they discovered. How did you unearth that bit family history, and why did you decide to go public with it?

In my case, it came quite unexpectedly: I came upon a postcard of a lynching of a young woman named Laura Nelson that happened in 1911 in Okemah, Oklahoma — a small town where my family basically comprised half the population. [In the photograph,] many of the people in town were standing on the bridge off of which Laura and her son were lynched.

I was horrified. And I don’t have any direct evidence of who in my family was involved, but it’s impossible to imagine that they weren’t. I grew up knowing that my grandfather was quite a racist. He didn’t try to hide it. And I also know that Woody Guthrie, who grew up next door to my grandfather, has written about this particular lynching extensively, and even wrote a song about his father’s role in leading the lynching mob.

I decided to go public with it because when it comes to looking at white supremacy and the legacy of chattel slavery and Jim Crow, it’s something that far too many white people project into the far past [instead of] part of the reality that you are still living in. That shift is not going to happen until people realize how close — and still in the middle of those legacies — we still are. Until more white people start telling these stories and unearthing them, it’s going to continue to be repressed.

I’m wondering how you reconcile the love that you perhaps feel for your family members with the reality of their participation in a lynching.

That’s a very hard question. In my case, the grandfather who would have been most directly connected to it, there was no love lost between us.

Being tied to those legacies of terror does have a corrupting effect on people’s souls. Even if it’s hidden or never spoken of, it’s not something that you can ever forget with regard to who you conceive yourself to be and the evil that you’ve done.

That said, this is where my faith comes in. I believe that human beings in general are a mixture of the glorious things they’re capable of and the horrible things that they’re capable of. None of us can claim to be pure. And the more honest one can be about one’s brokenness and the sins one has been responsible for, the more freedom one finds from that. I never have a pure understanding of who anybody is — most especially myself, but definitely my family.

In the U.S., the history that we — particularly white people — have told ourselves about our past has been much too pure for it to be real. Reckoning with its horrors is only going to make it more real. And history, as it becomes real, shows us the path to healing.

On the topic of history, I’ve heard you say that you see a massive cultural shift underway around the globe, and have likened it to what happened 500 years ago during the Reformation. First, what specifically do you see? And second, the Reformation happened in part because of the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press, and was followed by decades and decades of religious wars throughout Europe. Do you think that what we’re seeing now is a result of the advent of the Internet — the printing press of our era — and if so, should we expect a few hundred years of religious wars in our future?

When the Reformation happened, we had new technology — the printing press allowed anyone who knew how to read to pick up a book and read. We had the emergence of the nation-state, new political alignments. We had the emergence of nascent capitalism, so we had a shift of economics. You could just go on and on.

These types of seismic shifts in how the world is ordered are manifest in profound spiritual shifts. When the world gets reordered, your imagination with respect to the reality of the divine, transcendent and who you are gets recomposed. That’s happening now: The old orders are breaking down, and our imaginations are being forced to think of the transcendent in new ways and to tell new stories about who we are.

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Neera Tanden Got Twitter Right—And That Was her Problem

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Neera Tanden Got Twitter Right—And That Was her Problem

But Twitter has its own way of tempting you into provocative tweets, and then turning on you—especially when you make enough enemies from different points on the political spectrum, and they find a common moment for revenge.

A onetime Boston political boss named Martin Lomasney, who wielded power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had an oft-repeated rule for politicians: “Never write if you can speak, never speak if you can nod, never nod if you can wink.” Lomasney would surely have run in the other direction from Twitter, which isn’t just public but permanent. Yes, Donald Trump played the platform like a virtuoso; other politicians have used it savvily to bypass gatekeepers and build a base of loyalists. But for a political player, every tweet is fraught with peril: Even if you aren’t overtly insulting someone, there’s a chance some statement from your past will contradict a current political stance, or apply with poetic justice to a compromising situation.

Still, political types are also human beings, and the temptation to pour every thought onto Twitter, in search of a reaction, is ultimately biological. When you put out a tweet, anticipating a “like” or a “share,” your brain gets a hit of a pleasure neurochemical, says psychiatrist David Greenfield, founder and medical director of the Connecticut-based Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. At the same time, he says, the brain cuts off its pathways to the frontal cortex, the area that governs judgment. Once, this shutdown of higher-level thinking was a convenient evolutionary tool, Greenfield says: Prehistoric hunter-gatherers needed to shut out reason to serve the higher directives of mating and eating. Today, though, it has given us an internet that functions like “the world’s largest slot machine,” he says, as users embark on an endless hunt for validation. Tanden’s nakedly partisan tweets could derive her plenty of pleasure; one tweet during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh—“Susan Collins’ terrible treatment of Dr. Ford should haunt Collins for the rest of her days”—drew 3,097 retweets and 8,295 likes.

In the age of the ideological bubble, political tweets pose a specific kind of risk. If you’re sharing like-minded partisan thoughts with like-minded people, you’re likely to forget that you risk a negative reaction, says Whitney Phillips, a communications professor at Syracuse University and co-author of the upcoming book You Are Here: A Field Guide For Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape. “You speak in a code that’s appropriate for the audience,” Phillips says. But once your statement lands in front of a less-friendly group, your intentions don’t matter. “It’s impossible to control any of our messages,” she says. “You can only focus on the consequences.”
Phillips cites an internet axiom known as “Poe’s Law”—coined in the early 2000s, on a message board for creationists, when a user who called himself Nathan Poe declared that it was hard to discern the true believers from people who were being sarcastic. On the internet, Poe’s Law holds, you can’t know anybody’s true intentions. A commenter could be sincere or mocking, a real human being or a fake account. Anger could be deeply-felt or cynically overblown. And it’s easy to weaponize the outrage machine. It was a right-wing provocateur—hoping to reveal what he saw as Hollywood hypocrisy—who unearthed incendiary old jokes about rape and pedophilia from “Guardians of the Galaxy” filmmaker James Gunn’s Twitter feed in 2018, Phillips notes. But it was left-wing outrage over those tweets that ultimately got Gunn fired.

Tanden’s tweets, it’s fair to say, weren’t as troublesome as Gunn’s. She was largely pumping out standard-issue political snark, the kind Trump used to post from the White House on nearly an hourly basis. Still, there are rules of political conduct, and—if you’re not Trump—consequences for breaking them. In 2008, Samantha Power, then an advisor to presidential candidate Barack Obama, resigned from the campaign after telling a Scottish reporter that Hillary Clinton was a “monster.” Power had violated a norm: voicing the kind of insult that’s usually shared, Lomasney-style, outside the public view. (Post-election, her career recovered quickly.) And, like Gunn, Tanden succeeded in getting both groups—those on the left and the right—on her bad side. If everything you tweet can be used as ammunition in the future, it’s particularly lethal when it’s coming at you from all sides.

Tanden clearly realized that old tweets could cause her trouble in this new career moment, when she had to emerge from her Clinton-Biden bubble and confront her onetime targets in the flesh. Soon after Biden named her to the budget post, she deleted at least 1,000 tweets. But the internet never forgets. And, in keeping with Poe’s Rule, it has been hard to tell who on Capitol Hill is truly horrified, and who merely senses a political opportunity. At her confirmation hearing before the Budget Committee, Sanders chided Tanden for her “vicious attacks made against progressives. People who I have worked with. Me personally.” But he also has a longer-standing beef with Tanden over the 2016 election and her ideological agenda. And he seems not the type to wither in front of an insult.

Tanden did her duty and apologized profusely, hinting that she wanted to distance herself from the cesspool Twitter had become. But the truth is, she was following the rules of her chosen medium all along. There’s no point in tweeting if you aren’t saying something that can rile people up. “Our networks have been designed for this exact outcome,” Phillips says. “The most rancorous stuff becomes the stuff that is most visible, that has the most purchase.”

In other words, the internet did everything in its power to make Tanden act the way she did, rewarded her with nearly 377,000 followers, then punished her in the end. And yet, with every tweet, she had free will. Greenfield counsels his patients who want to change their internet habits to never actually type out a tweet in the “compose” box, in Twitter or any other social media platform. Rather, he says, type your message in the Notes app, think about it for a minute, and cut and paste when you’re good and ready. Martin Lomasney would have considered that decent advice.

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