In the weeks since the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, hundreds of people have been tasked with cleaning the building, collecting piles of litter, painting over violent graffiti and sweeping up broken glass. So much broken glass.
But far more than windows was shattered during the attempted insurrection — for those in the Capitol, who had once felt safe within that sanctum; for the families who saw loved ones injured and killed; and for a country that had never before doubted the orderly transition of power. Scenes of the violence and destruction replayed on Capitol Hill as former president Donald Trump's impeachment trial opened Tuesday. No matter how the trial ends, the United States must live with that damage.
Living with the damage does not need to be a metaphor. The Architect of the Capitol can preserve some physical evidence of the attack to create a permanent reminder for a country too eager to forget how precarious democracy can be. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has proposed leaving such evidence for future generations.
Communities around the world have made a similar choice in response to wars and political violence. From London to Berlin, battered buildings stand in memory of the horrors of World War II. In Ottawa, there are bullet holes in the Canadian Parliament's Hall of Honor, a memorial to a 2014 assault on the city by an Islamic State sympathizer. In Madrid, the Palacio de las Cortes, where the Spanish Congress of Deputies meets, is still tattooed with the gunfire of an attempted coup in 1981.
And in Prague, the mottled facade of the National Museum is an ever-present reminder of the Soviet invasion of 1968. The occupying force strafed the sandstone building with machine-gun fire. When the Soviets later instructed local laborers to repair it, the Czechs, according to national lore, deliberately chose the wrong materials. Instead of restoring the museum to its pristine former state, the patches permanently marked the building, turning the site of a painful attack into a symbol of national pride.
In the hours after the Capitol riot last month, as members of Congress reentered the ransacked building to continue their constitutionally mandated duty, then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., began to try to make sense of the events. "We can now add January 6th, 2021, to that very short list of dates in American history that will live, forever, in infamy," he said, likening the insurrection to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
In 1962, the United States erected a moving memorial to that national trauma and the more than 2,400 Americans who died under Japanese fire. But another remembrance has stood for much longer: At Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, the buildings some 20,000 active duty Navy and Air Force troops walk by each day are forever pockmarked by the machine-gun fire and shrapnel that fell that Dec. 7.
Today, veterans, their children, their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren make pilgrimages to the site to see firsthand how the world fractured that day. A retired master sergeant of the Air Force Reserve was given special permission to create castings of the damage as handmade keepsakes. And since 1985, what some have called the base's "birthmarks" were protected by a National Register of Historic Places designation, guaranteeing they would be retained during a recent renovation of the headquarters.
Romney has called for this same type of preservation at the U.S. Capitol. "Architecturally and historically, I think it would be a good thing to preserve some evidence of the destruction of the building," he said in a recent statement. His concern was for visitors centuries in the future: "One hundred and fifty years from now, as people tour the building, they'll say, 'Ah, this was where that insurrection occurred.' "
History will certainly remember the events of Jan. 6. Curators from the Smithsonian Institution began to collect artifacts even before the death toll and the damage were fully understood. The items will be studied, put into context and, eventually, secured behind glass. Some day, the damaged placard emblazoned with Nancy Pelosi's name that once hung above the House speaker's office door may be part of a museum exhibit on election violence.
But what happens before the event takes its place in the history books? How will the country remember the event in the coming weeks, months and election cycles?
Preserving prominent damage of the attempted insurrection — a shattered window, a splintered door — inside one of the country's most prominent buildings would be an immediate and profound act of remembrance. In a normal year, some 5 million visitors come to marvel at the buildings' beauty and their promise of enduring democracy; the Capitol complex employs thousands more who maintain it. Most importantly, our 535 representatives and senators and their staffs wander its marble halls daily. The very people who came under attack on Jan. 6 should not need a regular reminder that their words have the power to stoke hate and incite violence, but some do.
The seat of government must, of course, be repaired sufficiently to ensure the safety of those who work there, but a complete restoration will smooth over the physical evidence of the deep divides that threaten the nation, and leave the new razor-wire-topped fence around the complex as the only reminder of these events. The insurrection attempt was fueled by misinformation, but transforming the scars that now mar the Capitol into a monument will preserve one incontrovertible and uncomfortable truth, for this generation and for future ones: An attack on democracy happened here, in this place and in our time.
April White is a former editor at Smithsonian magazine. She is writing a book about the history of divorce in the United States. This piece was written for The Washington Post.