Column: U.S. not ready for truth

Whether or not there is an independent “truth commission” set up to investigate the events that occurred around and inside of the DC Capitol building on Jan. 6 probably will not matter anytime soon, and it’s quite possible that it will never matter.

“Truth commissions” are exactly what they sound like – a designated group of people (a committee) charged with investigating something (actions, events, accidents, crimes and more) to uncover and make publicly known the whole story and all of the truths that relate to the events being studied.

Truth commissions generally are not established for minor events or controversies, but instead are reserved for matters that have large implications for national security, environmental protection, civil rights or the continued safety and freedom of all populations.

Commissions are set up to bring clarity to events. They set the historical record straight, settling significant disputes and helping citizens to understand themselves, their fellow citizens and their country. Importantly, they also validate – psychologically – the perceptions and experiences of people who were damaged or victimized by the events.

Because commissions invariably are met with degrees of mistrust, skepticism, aspersion and resistance, they are usually composed of members with recognized stature and who are drawn from all “sides” of a disputed or controversial event. The only factor that need unify a commission is a shared commitment to thoroughness and fidelity.

There have been notable commissions. In the United States, we have had successful investigations of JFK’s assassination, the tragedy of 9/11, the accident at Three Mile Island, and the causes of racial conflict. Overseas, in Ireland, South Africa, Pakistan and the Balkans, there have been effective truth commissions.

But here in the U.S. today a constellation of factors exists that will in all likelihood prevent the creation of a commission or – if one is created – render its conclusions ignorable by a large portion of the citizenry.

For we are still in a shocking place in this country. A significant percentage of Republican voters and officeholders still believe that President Biden’s victory was dishonestly achieved. They believe that in every swing state where Biden prevailed, fraud and corruption prevented Donald Trump’s victory.

For any circumspect person, that would be an unthinkable belief. For holding that opinion requires one to dismiss all of the court cases and all of the recounts in all of the states – including many conducted by Republican-appointed judges and loyal Republican election officials.

The constellation of forces that I refer to – unprecedented today in scope and power – is the combination of everything that has produced this political moment and that produced Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. It is the combination of right-wing media, the ascendance of a triumphalist capitalism, the cravenness and dishonesty of Republican officeholders and the evolving realities of the past 45 years that have so buffeted society and citizens of all types.

A truth commission would not and could not begin to disassemble this aggregate of forces and factors. They create, in fact, a sort of inoculation against truths. In a simultaneous, both circular and starburst sort of dynamic, they reinforce a narrative that has firmly rooted itself in the minds of many Republicans.

The internet – the gamechanger of the postwar world – is the primary glue that knits the constellation together. Without the unprecedented amplifying, magnifying, unifying and undermining effects of the world of the web, the forces of reason could make progress against distortions and conspiracy thinking and irrationality.

A truth commission focused on Jan. 6 would uncover little new. Who would it impress who has not already been impressed? In the absence of Republican leadership to speak truths to their constituents, there can be no mechanism – no meaningful bipartisanship – that can disempower the inaccurate and destructive narratives that are transfixing and victimizing many ordinary, misled Republican citizens.

We saw with our own eyes – we watched on TV – the mob descend on the Capitol. We saw their signs, “Stop the Steal.” We saw their Trump, coiled snake, and Confederate flags. We watched as they forcibly broke through the doors of the building and tried to find Senators and Congressmen and halt the election certification. In the aftermath, we learned – beyond dispute – the identities of the marchers. They were Republicans, right-wing activists, QAnon nutcases, and other Trumpists.

Now, not many Republican citizens would support violence, attacking officeholders, or forcing their way into congressional offices. But the sentiments propelling that mob – the conviction that Democrats stole the election and that our voting processes are significantly compromised – are widely held even today by a large majority of Republicans.

For a few hours on Jan. 6, besieged Republican senators and Republican citizens watching from home were sobered and impressed. After returning to the Senate chamber later that evening, a shaken Senator McConnell gave a truly honest and moving speech. Reality had knocked and broken through. But that moment has passed, and – fueled by the staying power of the constellation – many Republicans have returned to the detent that exerts an irresistible hold on their minds.

Brian T. Watson of Swampscott is author of “Headed Into the Abyss: The Story of Our Time, and the Future We’ll Face.” Contact him at


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