Optics were introduced by Paul Irving, the former sergeant-at-arms of the House of Representatives. Through much of the day, he quibbled with its definition and the way in which his use of it had been characterized. As rioters were scaling the walls of the Capitol and turning themselves into human battering rams to break down the doors, a central question became: Where was the D.C. National Guard? Why weren’t they called in sooner? Was the delay because government officials were worried about how it would look to have troops on the Capitol grounds?
Irving said he was never concerned about how such an image might be perceived across the country and around the world. “I was not concerned about appearance whatsoever,” Irving said. “I was concerned about safety.”
This may be true. And yet appearances are in the thick of things.
The day’s testimony began with a Black woman with shoulder-length dreadlocks dressed in a Capitol Police uniform, with its epaulets and badges and her gold shield. The presence of Carneysha Mendoza, a captain and an Army veteran, spoke volumes about who stood up to protect democracy. She defined patriotic in a way that so many of the rioters, with their allegiances to white supremacy and misogyny, do not.
She had been prepared for violent mobs of racists and Proud Boys and other extremists because she’d dealt with them before, and doing so was part of her job. She was prepared for the hailstorm of vile personal attacks because she has “been called some of the worst names so many times that I’m pretty numb to it now.” She was ready for most anything because the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had taught her that “the unthinkable is always possible.”
Her statement detailing the events wasn’t filled with lurid details. Instead, it was loaded with data points of heartbreaking, enraging and terrifying normalcy.
In preparation for a long shift that she expected to begin in the late afternoon, she began her day at home having lunch with her 10-year-old son. Although reports had officers fighting the rioters for three hours, she knew it was probably much longer. Her Fitbit told her so. She’d been in exercise mode for well over four hours, which meant that Mendoza had clocked a marathon fending off fellow Americans who were trying to demolish democracy.
She spent the next evening consoling the family of fellow officer Brian D. Sicknick, who had died in the line of duty. Her birthday was Jan. 8. She was still nursing chemical burns inflicted by the mob.
This was the truth. These were the optics. And they were painful to see.
This dedicated Black woman laid out the day, her day, in front of a group of senators that included several who had hand-fed falsehoods to the rioters, stuffing them full of tall tales.
The point of the hearing was to try to understand how this happened. Why was law enforcement so outmatched? Who knew what and when? And how long will the Capitol campus be a compound surrounded by barbed wire?
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has been peddling the conspiracy theory that the armed riot was not an armed riot at all, but a masquerade ball in which a bunch of provocateurs costumed as Trump supporters instigated violence. He used his time at the microphone to wallow in this misinformation rather than to gather facts and seek truth.
“I’ve got a long list of questions, but this format really doesn’t lend itself to asking,” Johnson said in the middle of a hearing organized for the purpose of asking questions.
He then read what he described as an eyewitness account of Jan. 6, which described the crowd as family folks, jovial overweight people, lovable retirees and law-and-order-loving Americans carrying flags declaring their support for the police. These people could not have been violent, Johnson said. The violence must surely have been started by other people because these people, his people, didn’t look like the sort who would take those flagpoles and use them to assault police officers.
In the midst of Johnson’s dangerous meanderings, there was the belief that certain people couldn’t be dangerous because the optics weren’t quite right. In his telling, family folk can’t be filled with extremist ideas. The AARP crowd can’t be mean and dangerous. And the well-fed can’t spew vitriol.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), whose slim-suited countenance seems to pop up on every committee, probed the witnesses about whether the delay in activating the D.C. National Guard was because they were awaiting approval from congressional leadership. Or, to be specific, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Because with some Republicans, it’s always Pelosi. Hawley dug in, like a well-groomed dog with a bone, and managed to get the witnesses to clarify that Pelosi had nothing to do with when, why or if the Guard was deployed.
It was a fine fact to have unearthed from the rubble, but Hawley did not look particularly proud of his find. Instead, he expressed his affront that retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who is overseeing the investigation of the Capitol riot, had suggested that there was an appearance of “complicity” by some members of the Capitol Police.
The witnesses calmly denied being complicit. But Hawley was outraged on their behalf.
“There’s absolutely no evidence to that effect,” Hawley said. “I think it is not only extremely disrespectful, it’s really quite shocking. And this person has no business leading any security review related to the events of January 6th.”
While the optics of Hawley’s indignation might be pleasing to some, the point of an investigation — of this and future hearings — is to follow the evidence, to examine it and not to dismiss certain questions simply because they make one uncomfortable. People who swore an oath to defend the Constitution were part of that mob. Hawley himself voted to subvert an election. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who was also at the hearing, voted likewise.
Optics are rarely everything. Sometimes, they’re simply a distraction. But occasionally, if only for a few hours, they’re the only thing.