Pundits are learning all the wrong lessons from the Capitol riot. Despite yesterday's chaos, Joe Biden has now been certified as the president-elect. The vote to certify his victory was completed this morning at 3:33 a.m. Along the way, what is normally a standard and unremarkable procedure was instead interrupted by the first breach of the U.S. Capitol since the British burned down much of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. By the end of it, four people were dead.
What the hell happened yesterday and how it happened will take some time to answer properly. But as tends to be the case in times of crisis, people are proving eager to cram this unprecedented experience into familiar frames and take from it evidence for their pet policy proposals.
Exhibit A: the techlash. Because the groups who broke into Congress yesterday organized through online platforms, or were motivated to organize by information on them, people with perpetual axes to grind against social media want to put the blame on Big Tech.
Once again, we see neutral communications tools taking the fall for the things people communicate through them. But had Wednesday's mob not had Facebook Messenger, or Parler, or whatever else they were allegedly using to organize, does anyone really think they would've just called the whole thing off? There are plenty of private web forums and endless options for digital chat. No apps, no problem, either: Text messages, emails, and phone calls can spread the word just fine.
Attaching magical significance and responsibilities to particular platforms may make people feel like they're Doing Something to address a confusing and distressing situation, and it may hit at entities that mainstream politicians and their tribes love to loathe anyway. But it doesn't address any root causes of the phenomenon that distress people, and it leaves American politics mired in an eternal game of whack-a-mole with communication facilitators that simply squelches the speech rights of law-abiding people while distracting from the hard work of addressing the underlying issues that drove that communication.
Techlash is only one of many destructive frames developing around yesterday's events. A lot of people are calling for President Donald Trump and other Republican lawmakers who disputed the election results and encouraged protesters to show up in D.C. to be prosecuted for incitement.
It's certainly not wrong to call out Trump's obvious role in making this happen, or the way senators like Ted Cruz (R–Texas) and Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) contributed to the conspiracy theories driving it. But we absolutely don't want to open the can of worms that is broad interpretations of criminal incitement. Or treason. Or terrorism.
By all means, prosecute specific people for specific criminal acts, like vandalism and physical attacks on Capitol cops. But we don't need to reach for the highest possible criminal charges, or prevent protesters from flying home, or prosecute literally everyone who entered the building, or aim for punishment beyond people directly responsible for bad behavior.
Andrew McCarthy is on Fox News, saying that when he was a federal prosecutor, he prosecuted terrorists for the same thing the protesters are doing at the Capitol Building. "The President incited this."
— Orin Kerr (@OrinKerr) January 6, 2021
Another disturbing and unproductive trend has been lamentations about why more excessive force was not used.
Of course, there was some serious, even lethal, force used. One woman protesting was shot to death by police inside the Capitol. "By day's end, four people would be dead: one from gunfire and three from medical emergencies officials have yet to explain," notes The Washington Post.
To be sure, there are still a lot of unknowns about how rioters were able to break deep into the heart of Congress and remain there for quite some time without much resistance. But there are also some plausible explanations, such as that Capitol police were outnumbered, that D.C. didn't want the National Guard called in since Trump controls it, and that authorities had expected a smaller crowd and were trying to avoid an excessive and potentially escalating presence.
"Defense Department officials had previously said they anticipated around 350 members of the D.C. national guard would be enough to support Washington, D.C., police during the protests this week, mainly to assist with traffic control," reports The Wall Street Journal. "They wanted to avoid the optics of having any U.S. military personnel on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, and ordered the officers to avoid straying east of 9th Street in downtown Washington, blocks from the Capitol grounds, officials said."
It certainly can't be stressed enough how differently D.C. protesters against police brutality were treated over the summer. But however unfair the disproportionate responses are, we should never condemn de-escalation and restraint from authorities. The point is that police and those in charge should show all protesters—regardless of cause, skin color, or perceived political party alliance—the same restraint they (mostly) showed yesterday.
Which brings us to another bit of ridiculous rhetoric cropping up around the Capitol protests, riots, and break-ins yesterday: If you didn't condemn vandalism, looting, and violence at summer Black Lives Matter protests, you're a hypocrite for being aghast now.
I hate to break it to you but pretty much everyone is a hypocrite right now…
People that ignored or sometimes encouraged riots and called them "peaceful protests" now hate them
People that loved law and order and "back the blue" are encouraging storming the U.S. Capitol
— Caleb Hull (I'm With the CCP Don't Ban Me) (@CalebJHull) January 6, 2021
The group of people who supported Black Lives Matter and anti-police-abuse protests generally but did not oppose violence and destruction is actually fairly small. While many opponents of the protests insisted that support for any of the protests equated to support for everything that took place during them, the vast majority of people (at protests and commenting from afar) did disapprove of, speak out about, and even try to stop those who were using the protests as an excuse to smash shit up, steal, and start chaos. So while this sort of gotcha isn't exactly aimed at strawmen, it does describe a rather small group.
But we needn't sort all that out for this line of logic to be lacking. A mass break-in to the U.S. Capitol to interrupt presidential certification on behalf of a man who did not win is quite a bit beyond a few trash can fires and spray-painted monuments, or even whatever more serious violence did break out in isolated patches at summer protests. The MAGA hordes yesterday sent the entirety of Congress and the vice president into hiding. They forced Capitol police to barricade the House chamber to stop them from storming in. They broke Capitol windows and rifled through lawmakers' offices. You have to be willfully obtuse to see that as on par with some localized acts of vandalism.
The National Association of Manufacturers! https://t.co/b01c7Qt2W0
— Jesse Walker (@notjessewalker) January 6, 2021
- Here's how Trump responded yesterday.
- Stop calling this an attempted coup.
- Stop calling them anarchists:
I keep seeing people refer to the Trump rioters as "anarchists." They are no such thing. They are Trumpian populists willing to tear everything apart to give complete power to an authoritarian.
That's, uh, the opposite of anti-statist.
— Billy Binion (@billybinion) January 7, 2021
- What does "avocado chair" mean to A.I.?