Don’t Erase What Happened at the Capitol

The building should resemble the United States, a still-broken country in need of fixing.

A broken window at the U.S. Capitol.
Jim Lo Scalzo /Getty

About the author: Uri Friedman is the managing editor at the Atlantic Council and a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He was previously a staff writer and the Global editor at The Atlantic, and the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

On the evening of February 5, as Representative Andy Kim of New Jersey retraced the steps he’d taken nearly one month earlier, hours after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, he saw little remaining evidence of destruction. The shattered glass where Ashli Babbitt was shot outside the Speaker’s Lobby? Repaired. The statues defaced by cigarette butts? Fixed. The broken windows? Boarded up. The benches reduced to shards? Removed.

But when he walked by the Columbus Doors at the main entrance to the Capitol, leading into the Rotunda—the same doors through which the caskets of American presidents pass to lie in state—he came across one lingering sign of the mob: A single pane of glass in one of the doors was still shattered, riddled with cracks that looked like a mess of stars and an upside-down six.

“I personally think that that panel, if security would allow for it to remain, I think it should,” Kim told me earlier this week. “These are the doors through which you see some of the most iconic images of the insurrectionists coming into the Capitol,” where “that hate and that division burst through into our temple of democracy.”

“I’m sure whenever I see it for the rest of my life, if that panel remains there or is preserved somewhere else, I will always feel that immediacy of the chaos and the tragedy,” he added.

On Thursday, however, that last vivid reminder vanished as well, as staff came to remove the broken glass and fix the door. The damaged panes were nevertheless preserved, according to Erin Courtney, a spokesperson for the Architect of the Capitol.

“We are looking at options to display a collection after objects are no longer needed for prosecutorial purposes,” she told me, noting that the Architect of the Capitol has turned over “damaged items” and “debris” from the riot to the Department of Justice. She added that artwork taken down from the Capitol after January 6 needs special cleaning to remove damage from fire extinguishers, pepper spray, and other chemicals.

Whether it’s the smashed glass from the Columbus Doors or another evocative marker of the destruction, some damage from that day should be preserved in the Capitol before the rush to repair it all scrubs the memory from the edifice—as an enduring reminder to current and future generations of Americans of the fragility and resilience of American democracy, and the role we all play in upholding it. The broken glass could be permanently reinstalled in the Columbus Doors and safely reinforced if possible, for example. Or it could be prominently displayed nearby, as Kim and Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota proposed on Thursday in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Administration Committee Chair Zoe Lofgren.

Due consideration must be given to security, to ensuring that the building remains open for the work of the legislative branch, and to preventing any preserved evidence of the riot from becoming a shrine for the insurrectionists and their sympathizers. But what more powerful rebuke to those who sought to disrupt government business than getting on with that business in earnest while signaling that the attempted subversion will not be forgotten?

On the day of the insurrection, some suggested that such violence was alien to America. Senator Marco Rubio described the insurrection as “3rd world style anti-American anarchy,” while former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos characterized it as the stuff of “banana republics.” Americans passing through their legislature must be reminded that what transpired on January 6 was born of problems incubated in America, demanding solutions incubated in America. A sense of vulnerability reminds us of the need for vigilance. This is not the moment to shunt disturbing truths out of sight. An imperfect Capitol will be a greater source of inspiration for national renewal than a pristine one.

The notion of retaining damage in public buildings for such purposes might seem foreign to many Americans. As the journalist Andreas Kluth once observed in The Atlantic, the architecture of Washington, D.C., tends to tell “a fundamentally heroic narrative.” But that’s not the case everywhere in the world. Kluth contrasted this approach with the public architecture of modern Germany, which has been influenced by the philosophy that historical “scars must never be hidden” and “must instead be acknowledged, preserved, and displayed as an implicit reprimand to be moral and responsible in the here and now.” Many buildings built or rebuilt after German reunification surround “the disasters of the past” with “the achievements of the present” as “an exhortation for the future.”

As an example, Kluth cited the Reichstag, in Berlin, where the German Parliament meets. Renovating the building in the 1990s, construction workers discovered graffiti that had been scrawled on the walls by Russian soldiers when they seized control of the Reichstag from Nazi Germany in 1945. While some of the more offensive messages were removed, much of the graffiti was maintained in place for posterity as “a subtle warning against nationalism, hubris, and jingoism,” Kluth wrote.

Similar architectural decisions have been made elsewhere in Europe, from the National Museum in Prague to the General Post Office in Dublin. There’s also precedent in the United States itself. Scorch marks remain on the White House from when the British burned it in 1814, and a desk drawer in the Capitol retains a bullet hole from when Puerto Rican nationalists attacked the building in 1954.

Kim’s desire to maintain damage from the insurrection has been echoed by other lawmakers in both parties. Senator Mitt Romney recently suggested preserving “evidence of the destruction” so that people touring the building 150 years hence, when there will be no lived memory of the events of January 6, will say, “Ah, this is where that insurrection occurred.” Romney’s press secretary, Arielle Mueller, told me that “the senator has had informal conversations with [the] Senate curator’s office and the Architect of the Capitol about preserving parts of the damage.”

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents D.C. in Congress, told me that her office has reached out to Romney’s. Her staff is also investigating what insurrection-related damage remains at the Capitol and developing a bill directing Capitol authorities to preserve and display it somehow, as visible evidence of what occurred at a time when Americans’ shared sense of reality has been shattered.

“We don’t want the Capitol to be a wreck or anything of the kind,” she said, “but we do think it would be a disservice to erase this historic event.” This was “unprecedented,” she emphasized. Yes, the British burned the Capitol in 1814. But “that wasn’t from the inside.”

She envisions something to point to in the Capitol, maybe with a plaque under it so visitors can discover the damage on their own, blended in with the business of Congress. “I’d not want the tour guide to have to go out of his way. I want him to go past the very same places that he goes anyway,” she said. “And as he goes through, he should not simply [be] saying, ‘The Rotunda is where we meet and have these extraordinary services.’ He should also point to, if there is a marking there, what happened”—not just the tragedy of the insurrection but also the triumph of lawmakers returning to the Capitol immediately after the trauma to affirm the results of the 2020 election.

Norton’s vision reminded me of something Jane Campbell, the head of the United States Capitol Historical Society, had told me in the days right after the insurrection, as she walked the streets near the Capitol with sirens blaring in the background.

“The British came and burned [the Capitol] down. And we built it back,” she said. “Abraham Lincoln made a conscious decision that even with all the economic stress the country was going through, we were going to continue to build the dome as a symbol that the union would come back together.”

“The most important message from the whole drama [on January 6] is that the Congress came back and did the work of democracy,” she continued. “That even with broken windows, having been hunched under chairs with gas masks, unsure what was happening, sending text messages to their family that they love them, the Congress, Republicans and Democrats who didn’t get along [on] all kinds of things, said, ‘We’re going to come back.’”