John Colson: 9/11 and Jan. 6 — a pair of infamous dates

As the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks recedes into history, it leaves us free to contemplate our navels, or the brown haze floating over Colorado and obscuring the cobalt-blue skies we are accustomed to, or just about anything more mundane than the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in a multi-pronged, devastating act of violence.

But I can’t quite let the memory of that day fade without a little further comment about how 9/11 and Jan. 6 both have become infamous dates in our nation’s history.

The 9/11 attacks, as a historical moment, make up one of those incidents we all can recall quite clearly, such as the assassination of President John Kennedy on Nov. 23, 1963.

Most of us, I imagine, have distinct memories of where we were, what we were doing, when we first heard the news in both cases.

My memories from the shooting of JFK, for example, are a blur of impressions harvested from my seat at a desk at Franklin Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin, in a moment when I suddenly realized that teachers were gathering in the hallways, leaving students to our own devices as they whispered about the news, expressed outrage or despair and wept silently or noisily, depending on their personalities.

The teacher ultimately came in and told us what had happened that morning in Dallas and informed us that school would be closing for the rest of the day.

It was not yet noon, meaning we would be heading home for lunch and an unexpected half-day of play and leisure, but the mood in the room was anything but celebratory as we absorbed the anguish, fear and dread emanating from every adult we saw. We didn’t really understand it, not entirely, but we knew it was bad and that it involved violence and death. Many historians have tagged that day as the beginning of the end of innocence in the American socio-political sphere.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was asleep at our condo in Aspen when National Public Radio news host Bob Edwards told us that an airplane had just slammed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City.

Edwards, who woke us up every weekday morning to get us up and off to work, said it was uncertain if the crash was accidental and that more news would be forthcoming when it was available.

I ran out to the living room and turned on the TV, to be greeted by the image of the North Tower, with flames and smoke billowing from the impact zone between floors 93 and 99. Not even 20 minutes later, a second plane hit the South Tower, at which point all of us knew that this was no accident, a feeling confirmed when airliners crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field southwest of Pittsburgh.

There has been a lot of commentary about the 9/11 attacks and what they have meant for our nation and the world over the years, including a suggestion that the attacks that day have a direct connection to another attack on our foundational institutions, the Jan. 6 insurrection that culminated in rioters smashing their way into the U.S. Capitol building.

An essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Spencer Ackerman, in the Sunday edition of the New York Times, maintained that the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol was, in fact, “a direct result of the war on terror.” The war on terror, starting with the invasions of Afghanistan (host to al Queda terrorists who plotted and executed the 9/11 attacks) in 2002 and Iraq (which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks) a year later, Ackerman wrote, “accustomed white Americans to seeing themselves as counter terrorists.”

This was particularly true, he continued, of far-right extremist groups who, in their self-appointed role as arbiter of American patriotic behavior, felt free to form militias, rehearse revolution and prepare themselves for a violent day of reckoning with whomever they deemed their enemies.

Ackerman cites, in his essay, an example of such thinking from five years ago, when a Kansas militia group called the Crusaders plotted to murder some Somali immigrants living nearby, a plan based on nothing but their anti-Muslim bigotry and their innate violent tendencies.

Another, more recent such example was the 2020 plot by Michigan militia members to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and somehow overthrow the state government. Federal authorities arrested 13 of them, and the plot foundered.

Such domestic terrorism activities are now considered by many observers, including federal security forces, as a greater threat to the U.S. than Islamist terror groups, and I believe Ackerman is correct in linking the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks with the formation, growth and intensification of homegrown terrorist activities.

As self-styled “patriot” organizations polished up their self-image and their weaponry, abetted by such governmental overreaction as the deeply flawed Patriot Act passed in the wake of 9/11, they have become the domestic equivalent of the very Islamist terrorist organizations they profess to despise, with their violent hyper-intolerance of anything and anyone who disagrees with their motives and methods.

The problems represented by these circumstances have no easy solutions, but they cannot be allowed to simply metastasize and expand.

Our very future, as a nation and an ideal, is at stake.

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