Outside government, Brian Michael Jenkins of the RAND Corporation and Bruce Hoffman of the Council of Foreign Relations see a national commission as a crucial step in addressing the conspiracies that not only fueled January 6 but arose around the event itself. As evidence, these authors collectively cite the Warren Commission (1963), established to investigate the Kennedy assassination, the Kerner Commission (1967), which investigated the causes of Black urban rebellions in the 1960s, and the 9/11 Commission (2002)
These are all good ideas. But what makes us think that a national commission, no matter how it is established, would actually create change? Historically, that has never been the case.
Take, for example, the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, otherwise known as The Wickersham Commission, established by President Herbert Hoover in 1929. It was established to address the obvious fact that, in the interest of reducing alcohol consumption and the urban political corruption fueled by saloons, national prohibition had increased alcohol consumption, made its distribution even more profitable, created criminal organizations of unprecedented reach, and accelerated the corruption of public officials.
A number of important facts were exposed by the report, which remains to this day an important resource for understanding why police reform efforts were a classic Progressive-era project. The study included a state-by-state evaluation of emerging organized crime networks, data on the widespread corruption of federal Prohibition officers, and statistics on the numerous Americans murdered by federal officers.
But facts are not always truths, and the most important truth of Prohibition—that criminalizing alcohol had created a crime wave fueled by profits and federal police violence and turned poor, white Americans against the police in large numbers—was never addressed. Nor were the social and cultural roots of the sudden thirst for alcohol which had created a booming market for booze among demographics that had previously been modest drinkers: college students, women, and middle-class professionals.
Instead, the Commission recommended better funded, trained, and educated police, making something possible that Americans had always rejected: centralization of law enforcement. The report proposed a European-style national police force that could spread professional policing practices being cultivated in the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation, now known as the FBI.
Similarly, in 1967, the Kerner Commission scrupulously assembled data that caused the commissioners to conclude that poverty, a failed welfare state, police violence, structural racism, and media bias towards whites were the root causes of the urban rebellions that had been shaking the nation for five years. But the Commission had no power to enact solutions for the problems it identified—or even persuade whites that racism was, and is, a cancer on the body politic. As the events of summer 2019 demonstrate, a decisive number of white people, and more importantly, politicians, continue to implicitly and explicitly claim that the chief cause of anti-Black violence lies in the propensity of Black people to be violent towards each other.
Or let’s take the Warren and 9/11 Commissions, both of which were established to address national security breaches so shocking that amateur investigators armed with speculative fantasies and distrust of government continue to fuel influential conspiracy theories about them to this day.