From Sept. 11 to Jan. 6: How the Capitol Insurrection Was ‘The Logical Endpoint of the 9/11 Era’
On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, members of Congress gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building, the symbolic seat of American democracy.
It had been just hours since Al Qaeda operatives killed nearly 3,000 people in the worst terror attack on the U.S. in the country’s history, turning four passenger airplanes into deadly weapons.
Standing before the building that’s believed to have been the intended target of one of the hijacked planes, Republicans and Democrats alike raised their voices to sing “God Bless America.”
It was a stirring moment of unity.
It wouldn’t last.
America After 9/11, a special, two-hour FRONTLINE documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team, reveals why — finding in the U.S. response to 9/11, across four presidencies, a chain of unintended consequences that would usher in an era of fear, mistrust and division, and that would see the Capitol become a target once again.
This time, the threat was from within.
“Who are we? And what do we want to do as a nation? We answered that question too simply on 9/11: We’re the ‘good guys,’” journalist and author Tom Ricks, formerly of The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, says in America After 9/11. “And 20 years later, we found out that we are the enemy, that the biggest national security threat facing the United States is internal. And it has grown, partly as a result of American leadership failures over the last 20 years since 9/11.”
The scene from the film’s opening, in the clip above, offers a striking juxtaposition between lawmakers’ show of unity on the Capitol steps on 9/11 and rioters rushing those same stairs two decades later, as part of an attempt to subvert American democracy.
“The Jan. 6th insurrection at the Capitol was the logical endpoint of the 9/11 era,” Ben Rhodes, a former top national security adviser to President Barack Obama, says in the excerpt. “When you have people who can’t trust institutions anymore, who are angry that the wars that they were promised great victories in didn’t turn out well, they start to look for people to blame.”
America After 9/11 traces the roots of modern-day distrust in the U.S. government back to mistakes in what the George W. Bush administration termed the “war on terror,” starting with strategic missteps in Afghanistan, the determination to go to war in Iraq, and inaccurate claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda.
“What 9/11 did was really replace the ideals that we professed, in terms of democracy and in terms of moderation and restraint, with a single impulse: survival,” historian Jelani Cobb, a staff writer for The New Yorker, says in the documentary.
When Iraq wasn’t found to have WMDs, “the long-term effect was a beginning of a certain level of distrust of the government — that the government lied to them and that we went into Iraq under a false pretense,” Darlene Superville of the Associated Press says in the film.
“You could see the beginning of some of the conspiracy theories that have sort of infected the American mindset,” says Jane Mayer of The New Yorker.
That distrust would deepen with revelations about the CIA’s use of torture and then the Obama administration’s management of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of ISIS and the escalating use of drone attacks.
“When we started thinking of the drone as the answer to all problem terrorism, this is when we failed,” says Ali Soufan, a counterterrorism expert and former FBI agent. “A drone cannot kill an ideology. … So every time we kill someone, 10 people come to take their position.”
All the while, other outgrowths of the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. response were on the rise in America: division, mistrust, racism and conspiracy theories. The film shows how President Donald Trump, while continuing the fight against ISIS and terrorists abroad, turned the language of the war on terror on his perceived enemies at home. Ultimately, America After 9/11 draws a line from the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, fueled by President Trump’s false claims of a stolen election.
“If we look at Jan. 6 as one measure of where we are as a nation, did bin Laden succeed in some way in fundamentally dividing us and bringing pain in ways that we couldn’t see at the time?” author and journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran, formerly of The Washington Post, asks in the film.
“If we don’t take a proper accounting of what we did in these past 20 years and what the impact has been, not just half a world away, but what the impact has been within our borders, then we have fundamentally misunderstood the legacy of 9/11.”
For the full story, watch America After 9/11 in full below. The FRONTLINE documentary is also available to stream on FRONTLINE’s website and in the PBS Video App. The film is directed by Michael Kirk; written by Michael Kirk and Mike Wiser; produced by Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser and Philip Bennett; and produced and reported by Jim Gilmore and Gabrielle Schonder. A collection of extended interviews from the making of America After 9/11 is available as part of the FRONTLINE Transparency Project.