It is painful to write about the January 6 attack for reasons we all know. That knowledge does not, however, mean we should not explicitly name and condemn what happened. On January 6, 2021, a mob of violent extremists, radicalized by Donald Trump and his allies, attacked the United States Capitol Building, in an attempt to overthrow the Constitution and install an unelected autocrat.
The attack was a terrorist act, because it sought to use violence and terror to achieve political aims. It was an insurrection, because it employed coordinated paramilitary violence to subvert the Constitutional process of certifying the winner of the 2020 Presidential election. It was a coup attempt, because the aim was to overrule American voters, overrule the Constitutional system, and install an unelected autocrat.
It is worth noting that the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces released a letter denouncing the insurrection, saying:
“The rights of freedom of speech and assembly do not give anyone the right to resort to violence, sedition and insurrection.”
They promised the US military would follow no illegal orders. That this was necessary should alarm everyone and make clear the threat of authoritarian violence posed by Trump and his extremist allies.
Paramilitary attackers brought zip ties and weapons, including chemical agents; they constructed a gallows, followed pre-mapped routes to invade the building and overwhelm Capitol Police, and chanted their intention to murder the Vice President. Kidnapping and assassination were part of the plot for at least some of the attackers.
We are fortunate that then Vice President Mike Pence—faced with open threats of assassination, abandoned by his President, surrounded by radicals with no respect for the rule of law—refused to flee in terror and instead stayed in the Capitol Building to carry out his Constitutional responsibilities.
For over three hours, police bravely battled the attackers, in an effort to protect the Capitol and secure the Constitutional order. Officer Brian Sicknick lost his life. Officer Michael Fanone suffered a heart attack. More than 100 officers suffered serious injuries, and four later committed suicide.
Their sacrifice held the line against terror and autocracy; they protected and preserved the Constitution and the republic.
The supposed “confusion” of the people participating in the insurrection—some of whom acknowledge they were lied to and radicalized by Trump and his sinister machinery of disinformation—is no excuse. Every person who joined the attack—which visibly included violent assault, threats of assassination, and offensive use of chemical weapons—made a conscious choice to use violence and fear to cancel and overrule the votes of their fellow citizens.
Shocking as it was to witness the brutal assault on police and the plotting of kidnappings and assassinations, it was not surprisingly out of character for Donald Trump. This was the man who experimented with disappearing protesters in unmarked vans, launched a chemical weapons attack on peaceful protesters outside the White House, and separated babies from asylum seeking families to intentionally destroy lives and terrorize millions who might aspire to come to the United States.
The right to seek asylum from violence and persecution is protected by international law. US federal law makes it a crime to treat asylum seekers as criminals. The guarantee of equal protection and due process means Trump had no lawful authority to behave as he did toward asylum seekers. His attack on these most vulnerable aspiring Americans was an attack on the rights of all Americans and on the Constitution itself.
We now know that Trump and others close to him planned to subvert the Constitutional process of counting lawfully cast and confirmed votes, plotted to cancel the votes of millions of people across seven states, and coordinated with some of the planners of the attack on the Capitol. The evidence that the attack of January 6, 2021, was a coup attempt is in the public domain.
We also know that the investigation into the January 6 attack has produced evidence from White House staff that Trump watched the attack on TV and repeatedly refused to mobilize the National Guard to secure the Capitol and declined for more than 3 hours to call for an end to the attack. That refusal may constitute an intentional misuse of high office in support of a violent coup attempt.
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming has said investigators need to answer the question:
“Did Donald Trump, through action or inaction, corruptly seek to obstruct or impede Congress’s official proceeding to count electoral votes?”
The violence of January 6, 2021, and the complicity of Trump and his allies are core challenges facing the United States, going forward. Experts in the causes of armed conflict warn the United States is currently experiencing major warning signs of a nation-state at risk of collapse.
Trump continues to propagandize and radicalize supporters, and is working to persuade increasing numbers of supporters to tolerate political violence. Violent extremist groups have become a visible part of local civic life in the United States, menacing school boards and local officials and threatening violence against anyone who opposes them.
When a violent extremist can be the most visible and dominant voice in a major American political party, our democratic republic is at risk. Today, as we remember the tragedy of one year ago and take stock of the threats we face now, the words of Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who lost his son days before he and his family endured the January 6 attack, offer hope:
“If a person can grow through unthinkable trauma and loss, perhaps a nation may, too.”
Maybe we can turn tragedy into purpose, meaning, cooperative problem solving, and stability, but that will require all of us to bring our best selves to the civic space and deny extremists any role in public life. Self government means finding ways to be resolute in making decency the rule. Let’s make sure to do more of that.
The image above was captured at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on a spring day in 2016. The girl pictured used her hand to block the light, so she could read the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. What is not seen is the spontaneous semi-circle of onlookers, who had come from around the world, giving her space to have this moment and acknowledging each other’s sacred appreciation of this communication between transcendent values and human innocence. Many had tears in their eyes for the beauty of this sacred moment, and for the knowledge that democracy must always be cared for and actively made real.
UPDATE—January 13, 2022
11 participants in January 6 attack charged with seditious conspiracy
According to the Associated Press:
Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group, has been arrested and charged with seditious conspiracy in the attack on the U.S. Capitol, authorities said Thursday.
Ten other people also were charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the attack on Jan. 6, 2021, when authorities said members of the extremist group came to Washington intent on stopping the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory.
Title 18, Part I, Chapter 115, § 2384 of the U.S. Code outlines the crime of “Seditious conspiracy” and the corresponding penalties. It reads:
If two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof, they shall each be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.(June 25, 1948, ch. 645, 62 Stat. 808; July 24, 1956, ch. 678, § 1, 70 Stat. 623; Pub. L. 103–322, title XXXIII, § 330016(1)(N), Sept. 13, 1994, 108 Stat. 2148.)
The New York Times reports:
at least four Oath Keepers who were at the Capitol that day and are cooperating with the government have sworn in court papers that the group intended to breach the building with the goal of obstructing the final certification of the Electoral College vote.
These are the first charges of seditious conspiracy in a sweeping federal prosecution of hundreds of people who participated in the insurrection.