"All animals experience fear—human beings, perhaps, most of all." The government depends on it to "secure popular submission, compliance with official dictates, and, on some occasions, affirmative cooperation with the state's enterprises and adventures," wrote the historian Robert Higgs in a 2005 essay.
The storming of the Capitol was a horrifying event, and Americans were understandably traumatized. But the reaction to a crisis also requires special vigilance.
After the horror of the 9/11 attacks, many Americans acquiesced in the face of any policy that promised to keep them safe.
We got mass surveillance, deadly foreign wars, state-sanctioned torture, and the incompetent Department of Homeland Security.
This week's armed lockdown of D.C.—in preparation for the swearing-in of a new government—provides us with a visceral feel for the legislative proposals we can expect in the months to come.
"They were a riotous mob. Insurrectionists. Domestic terrorists," President-elect Joe Biden said. "It's that basic. It's that simple."
In his remarks after the Capitol attack, Biden promised to revive a domestic terrorism bill that would make "the same commitment to root out domestic terrorism as we have [made] to stopping international terrorism."
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) objected to the call for a new domestic terrorism bill on Twitter, noting that "our problems on Wednesday weren't that there weren't enough laws, resources, or intelligence. We had them, & they were not used."
She pointed to a different culprit.
"We're going to have to figure out how we rein in our media environment," she said on Instagram, "so you can't just spew disinformation and misinformation, it's one thing to have different opinions, but another thing to say things that are just false."
To let government agencies "rein in" the media is to put control over speech in the hands of people who always see the benefit in less scrutiny and criticism of their own actions.
As former Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel famously quipped, "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before."
"By keeping the population in a state of artificially heightened apprehension, the government-cum-media prepares the ground for planting specific measures of taxation, regulation, surveillance, reporting, and other invasions of the people's wealth, privacy, and freedoms," wrote Higgs.
A politician's wish list of expanded powers is endless. And we must be especially careful when fear overtakes us not to turn a blind eye to a different threat coming straight at us.
This video essay is based on Tuccille's January 15, 2021 column, "Don't Let the Capitol Riot Become a 9/11-Style Excuse for Authoritarianism."
Narrated by J.D. Tuccille; edited by Meredith Bragg; Camera by Qinling Li.
Riot footage by Ford Fischer.
Photo Credits: Ron Sachs/picture alliance / Consolidated/Newscom; SplashNews/Newscom; Stefani Reynolds/CNP / Polaris/Newscom; KEVIN DIETSCH/UPI/Newscom; Hubert Boesl/picture-alliance / dpa/Newscom; JASON REED/Reuters/Newscom