The Terrorism of the Capitol Attack

The importance of calling the insurrection by its name

In a Senate hearing last week, FBI director Christopher Wray said it straight: “That attack, that siege, was criminal behavior, plain and simple, and it’s behavior that we, the FBI, view as domestic terrorism. It’s got no place in our democracy and tolerating it would make a mockery of our nation’s rule of law.”

He called the events of January 6 at the US Capitol, first and foremost, domestic terrorism. Not a protest. Not a riot. Not a festive crowd. Not mob chaos. Not “simply” an insurrection. Or a coup.

All of these terms, with the exception of propagandist Senator Ron Johnson pushing the “jovial, friendly” crowd disinformation, are reasonable responses to this complex, still-unfolding story. Especially in the early days after that horrific event, observers struggled to find the right words. Many of these depictions continue to be used interchangeably.

But the words matter, especially as we look forward this week to the confirmation of Merrick Garland as Attorney General, who has pledged to investigate and follow all leads “wherever they take us.” And the words matter as Republicans seek to sanitize the reality or deny the facts by falsely claiming that it was Antifa protestors dressed up as Trump supporters. Let’s not forget the now-departed Rush Limbaugh who sought to dilute the day’s horror and excuse criminals who “breached the doors and took some selfies.”

Each choice of words has different criminal consequences and frames the attack in ways that hold the perpetrators more or less accountable—and more or less profoundly guilty for attacking the symbol of our democracy, threatening the lives of the people who inhabited the Capitol that day, and attempting to destroy America’s sacred commitment to democratic elections and a peaceful transfer of power.

These distinctions also have significance in how seriously or how carelessly the public perceives and treats that fateful day. Think of the use of “storming the Capitol,” with all of its romantic, passionate, swashbuckling intimations.

Or worse, Donald Trump’s own words only minutes before the attack: “Looking out at all the amazing patriots here today. I have never been more confident in our nation’s future.”

Patriots. Attacking the Capitol. Chanting to assassinate the Vice President. Assaulting and killing police officers. Threatening the murder of the Speaker of the House or other members of Congress. Rejecting an election’s legitimate outcome. Patriots.

Gun-mad congresswoman Lauren Boebert may have thought it was all passion and revolutionary fervor when she tweeted “Today is 1776” on the morning of January 6, then live-tweeted the movements of Nancy Pelosi during the violent attack. But Title 18 of the US Code provides clear counterpoint in its definition of the criminal act of insurrection:

“Whoever incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof, or gives aid or comfort thereto, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.”

Let’s rewind to the March 2 hearing and the FBI’s Chris Wray, who both emphasized how the attack matched the FBI’s prioritized focus on domestic terrorism and how its work requires identifying and charging specific criminal acts. The FBI’s own site, in seeking the public’s help to identify suspects, references unlawful entry into the U.S. Capitol, destruction of property, assaulting law enforcement, targeting members of the media for assault and “other unlawful conduct.”

Perhaps most important, Wray fended off the efforts of GOP Senators attempting to reduce the insurrection’s racial significance and deadly motivations by refuting loaded questions that January 6 included Antifa protestors and undermining the notion this was somehow equivalent to attacks on property during Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

He reminded the Senators that, in June 2019, the FBI “elevated racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism to our highest threat priority, on the same level with ISIS and homegrown violent extremists, where it remains to this day.” He told them that the number of arrests for “racially motivated violent extremists” who are white supremacists tripled between 2017 and 2020.

Asked specifically about the role of white supremacists in the Capitol assault, he said that “a large and growing number of the people that we have arrested so far in connection with the 6th are what we would call militia violent extremists.” And some of those “in the racially motivated violent extremist bucket [are] advocating for the superiority of the white race.”

In the coming weeks, we should expect Department of Justice investigations of charged insurrectionists and domestic terrorists to begin leading to prosecutions and sentences. Members of that Senate hearing, like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, may have asked questions of Wray—not to get to the bottom of that deadly day—but to better understand their own potential complicity and criminal risk.

Soon the questions from the FBI and Department of Justice may be coming their way, along with other members of Congress who perpetuated the Big Lie, possibly assisted the insurrection planning and incited extremist reaction. Then they may finally realize how much the words they chose to use matter.

As for the former guy? I offer this:

A few definitions:

Domestic terrorism: Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial or environmental nature.

Terrorist incident: A violent act or an act dangerous to human life, in violation of the criminal laws of the United States, or of any state, to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

A riot: A violent public disorder; specifically, a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with a common intent.

A coup or coup d’état: The sudden, violent overthrow of an existing government by a small group. The chief prerequisite for a coup is control of all or part of the armed forces, the police and other military elements.