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Opinion | Why the Capitol Riot Reminded Me of War

I remember the first night of the battle in Falluja — thousands of Marines advancing into the city, jets swarming overhead and dropping their ground-shaking ordnance, and the knowledge that I was part of something that, for a moment, held the entire world in its thrall, surrounded by people who were also a part of it. We did this together. Yes, we certainly did, but we didn’t yet know the full implications of what we had done and how it would echo in our own lives and the lives of others, for years and decades to come. Violence has a long tail.

Within minutes of the first breach, the crowd pours into the Capitol. On entering an opulent conference room, Mr. Sullivan asks himself, “What reality is this?” Then, along with a crowd, he rushes into the Rotunda, and his advance is stalled as if he has hit an invisible wall. He and others are stupefied by what they see: the gilded dome above their heads, the statuary and paintings along the walls. While Trump supporters meander around him, he shouts, “What is this? What is life?” A woman, who has been filming him as he is recording her, stops and says, “I’ll give you your hug now.” They embrace and congratulate each other. Mr. Sullivan tells her to watch his YouTube channel, and she says, “You weren’t recording, were you?” and he assures her that he’ll delete their exchange.

Throughout the video, the elation of the insurrectionists is juxtaposed with the horror of the Capitol Police officers, who know they’re overwhelmed and continually seem to be falling back. This vacillation — between horror and ecstasy, not only within groups but also within individuals, attends the madness in every war, and it is the defining characteristic of this video.

Within minutes, Mr. Sullivan has pushed to the head of the crowd, which is closing in on the main legislative chambers. When they approach locked doors, he is quick to volunteer his knife to pry them open (though it is never used). Eventually, the crowd stalls at a bank of glass-paneled doors marked “Speaker’s Lobby.” Law enforcement has barricaded the corridor with office chairs and desks. Mr. Sullivan urges the police officers to step away, warning them that they’re only going to get hurt. As the crowd continues to break sections of the glass, Mr. Sullivan sees an officer aiming a pistol at the mob on the other side of the doors. He shouts, “There’s a gun!”

For 14 seconds, his camera holds steady on the gun aimed at the rioters. He doesn’t run away or push anyone else away. He simply repeats, “There’s a gun!” over and over. It’s as if the experience has left him unclear whether this is real or a dream, unable to imagine he might be the one about to get shot. Violence, up close, is surreal. Your mind struggles to comprehend its own fracturing, and so the response to the most threatening forms of danger often isn’t terror. It’s stupefaction, wonder, a sense of “Wow, look at that.”

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