Vice President Mike Pence finishes a swearing-in ceremony for senators in the Old Senate Chamber at the Capitol in Washington, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021.

Vice President Mike Pence finishes a swearing-in ceremony for senators in the Old Senate Chamber at the Capitol in Washington, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool

Mr. Vice President, Now Is the Time

Mike Pence must unify the nation. He must tell the truth about the election results to the millions who voted for him on the same ballot as Trump.

 An existential threat requires a unified response.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, part of which was aimed at the Capitol Building, Americans united behind President George W. Bush despite their feelings toward the results of a disputed election just 10 months earlier. Today, our Republic requires another such moment of unity. Tragically, President Donald Trump has shown himself incapable of acting in anyone’s interest but his own. But we cannot wait until the new Biden administration takes office, lest America be seen as just another dictatorship where a new government’s first order of business is to punish the supporters of its predecessor.

This is therefore Vice President Mike Pence’s moment to lead. He must unify the nation. He must tell the truth about the election results to the millions who voted for him on the same ballot as Trump. He must deliver an explicit, unequivocal rebuke to the ideas that led to this disaster and hold accountable all those who fomented it, regardless of rank. He must isolate and expose the violent insurrectionists and their backers. He must urge both parties in Congress to respond with a unified tone equal to the shared danger we all face.

To help Congress reach that unity, he must urge all of the Republican lawmakers who voted against accepting the Electoral College to admit publicly that their political stunt was a mistake. He must urge them to declare that there was no significant fraud.

It is crucial that we urgently confront this domestic cancer to our democracy and to defeat it, operationally, culturally, and politically in a unified manner.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the Capitol was saved through the heroism of a few passengers on board United Airlines Flight 93. On Jan. 6, a seditious mob came close to accomplishing what Osama bin Laden could not. By the thinnest of margins, their guns, pipe bombs, and Molotov cocktails were intercepted before they could reach the building. Through the bravery of law enforcement officers, a much worse disaster was averted.

Those officers managed to hold the line — narrowly — despite a colossal dereliction of duty by the entire national security establishment responsible for securing the Capitol on that tragic day. These officials not only failed by allowing the foundation of our Republic to be tarnished, they betrayed the memory of all those who have sacrificed to defend American values, from the fields of Gettysburg to the beaches of Normandy and beyond. Indeed, the scale of the failure makes it reasonable to ask whether the breach was allowed to happen, not through casual incompetence, but by deliberate neglect. We should not be satisfied with the mere resignations of few.

Make no mistake: January 6, 2021 was America’s darkest day since the Civil War.

What happened at the Capitol was not the stuff of third-world dictatorships; it was worse. Such a catastrophic lapse in security would embarrass even those countries our president calls “shitholes.” Even amid the convulsions of the Arab Spring, no legislature was breached. The last time we have heard of such an act was when Turkey’s parliament was bombed in the 2016 coup attempt that was so large it involved the military’s fighter jets and tanks.

What happened was not just a failure of intelligence; it was worse. U.S. intelligence agencies have failed to investigate extreme right-wing groups, despite repeated warnings, that’s true. But the storming of the Capitol was openly incited by Trump and planned and coordinated in the most public manner imaginable, on social media. And still — shockingly, unforgivably — our security agencies failed to take it seriously.

What happened was not just a security breach, either; it was worse. It was a surgical strike at the heart of American democracy, all but ordered from the White House. No foreign enemy could have inflicted such a grievous wound; we did this to ourselves. This was an American insurrection.

What happened was not a windfall to our adversaries; it was worse. The rampage likely presented a golden opportunity for hostile groups and intelligence agencies. Amid the chaos, a few people can be seen methodically taking pictures of documents inside the Capitol. Several laptops with classified access were stolen. We need an immediate foreign counter-intelligence audit to determine what information, if any, was compromised; and we need a broad, bipartisan investigation along the lines of the 9/11 Commission to determine what went wrong, how we can avoid it in future, and who needs to be held accountable.

What happened did not simply dent our country’s image; it was much, much worse. Today, America’s reputation around the world lies in ruins. By extension, so does that of Western democracy. For the violent extremists and many of the white supremacists — who were the leading operational force in a fanatic coalition utilized by the president in his insurrection — this is a success. If it is not swiftly challenged, it might mark a new beginning for them. They now have incredible imagery for their movement, and troves of new materials for future recruitments. Our allies are in despair, while authoritarians like Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, who equate freedom with anarchy, are popping the champagne corks. On Jan. 6, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass wrote, “If the post-American era has a start date, it is almost certainly today.”

So much is in Pence’s hands. At this moment of peril, the vice president’s words matter. His moral stand matters. Let us all hope he passes this historic test of leadership, because the future of our republic depends on it.