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The true ramifications of the Capitol Hill riot

Chaos at the Capital | Trump supporters demonstrate in front of Capitol Hill earlier this year in a bid to contest the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Chaos at the Capital | Trump supporters demonstrate in front of Capitol Hill earlier this year in a bid to contest the results of the 2020 presidential election.

On January 6, supporters of President Donald J. Trump gathered in Washington D.C. and stormed the Capitol Building, with the aftermath leaving five people dead. In the hours that followed, politicians, major television networks and newspapers all condemned the act as an attempted coup. Institutions like the Federal Bureau of Investigation stepped in, encouraging people to identify the rioters that had shown their faces on the figurative mountains of digital evidence posted to social media in the wake of the raid. However, once the flash of breaking news wears off, this incident seems to be much more of a nonevent to trigger a new perpetual state of emergency than any sort of “tragic” or “traumatic” event. 

The actual event itself was rather uneventful. A few thousand supporters of Donald Trump entered the Capitol Building after Capitol police forces yielded, and they proceeded to vandalize whatever they could take hold of, with one person even carrying out the Speaker of the House’s podium. The congressmen and senators inside the building at the time were counting electoral ballots to secure Joseph R. Biden’s victory in the presidential election that occurred last November, and were evacuated when the rioters arrived on Capitol Hill. While there were pipe bombs found near the offices of the Democratic and Republican National Committees, and one officer succumbed to injuries inflicted by rioters, the event was oddly peaceful for a major violent incident. For one, recorded fragments of the riot showed Capitol police retreating in the face of rioters, which was misinterpreted by some of them as an act of solidarity. The rioters themselves did not manage to seize the Capitol Building, and the vast majority of them decided to leave by the end of the day. However, if one was to gauge the media response to this odd event, they would be met by what can only be called hysteria. Calls to label those who had entered the building as “domestic terrorists” were abound, with some media commentators and party officials calling for their immediate arrest and prosecution as traitors to the United States. Comparisons to 9/11 were invoked, and President-elect Biden promised that a new domestic terrorism law would be passed in the wake of what he called “one of the darkest days in the history of our nation.”

It can be hard to see through the smoke of media-syndicated panic, but an obvious comparison can be drawn between the ongoing events surrounding the riot and the response to the real 9/11, which was exploited by the administration of President George W. Bush to pass the draconian USA PATRIOT act, which gave police and intelligence agencies the power to indiscriminately tap phone calls and monitor computer communications as long as the subjects of surveillance were suspected of “terrorism.” Later on, President Barack H. Obama used his executive powers to grant law enforcement and national security institutions the power to detain suspects of terrorism for indefinitely long amounts of time. 

It is clear that accusations of terrorism are not to be thrown around lightly, but it is also painfully obvious that the definition of “terrorism” has become incredibly blurry now that so many legal experts and politicians have started advocating for this newly minted group of criminals to be labeled “terrorists.” For one, they had no known organization or goal beyond a few vague messages from President Trump to “patriotically” dispute the results of the presidential election, which although is an egregious act, does not come close to the goals of actual terrorists, like the Islamic State or the Oklahoma City bomber. Secondly, no acts of deadly violence were carried out at the raid itself, except by Secret Service agents, who shot and killed a rioter who attempted to enter the House Chamber, where members of Congress were hiding while awaiting evacuation. Most rioters seemed content on reveling in the media spectacle they were creating, taking selfies of themselves breaking windows, stealing souvenirs and posing in spots they would normally only see on television. 

The precedent set during this time, when an act this harmless can be defined as the same kind of crime as deadly mass shootings and bombings, does not bid well for individual freedoms in the United States. There can be no doubt that what happened at the Capitol on January 6 will be used to further expand the definition of terrorism, to further strengthen the powers of the state to eliminate all potential suspects of terrorism and usher in an intensified American police state.

By Jason Wu, Opinion editor
Photo courtesy of Ted Eytan