Domestic Terrorism Strikes U.S. Capitol, and Democracy

By Bruce Hoffman

Originally Published by the Council on Foreign Relations – January 7, 2021

The breaching of the U.S. Capitol and disruption of the presidential succession by a pro-Trump mob has inflicted lasting damage on the nation’s image as a bastion of democracy. The country should now dedicate itself to rebuilding civil discourse.

You track armed movements and terrorism around the world. Were these domestic terrorists?

Yes. Terrorism is determined by the act itself, not by the type of perpetrator or their cause. This is the U.S. government’s approach. The FBI, the lead agency for countering terrorism, cites the definition of terrorism found in 18 U.S. Code 2331(5) [PDF]: “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” The FBI further defines [PDF] domestic terrorism as acts intended to be a means to “Intimidate or coerce a civilian population; [or] Influence the policy of government by intimidation or coercion.”

What occurred at the U.S. Capitol yesterday conforms to this definition. It involved people using violence or the threat of violence to intimidate democratically elected representatives, the wanton vandalization and destruction of government property, the deliberate subversion of the U.S. electoral process, and the derailment of the peaceful transfer of power that is the hallmark of U.S. governance.

How much is the president to blame for the violent actions of these rioters?

President Donald J. Trump repeatedly perpetuated false claims of election fraud that have just as repeatedly been invalidated by state and federal courts, state legislatures, and appointed and elected officials. He brazenly invited protesters to Washington to attempt to reverse the election. Trump told them on Twitter: “Be there, will be wild.” Those who answered his call achieved what Osama bin Laden failed to on September 11, 2001: a successful assault on the cherished and sacred citadel of U.S. democracy—which was broadcast to the world, thus tarnishing America’s image and undermining confidence in U.S. leadership and institutions. Just as lamentably, President Trump has yet to condemn the Capitol’s occupation. Instead, he validated yesterday’s events by telling his followers that he loved them and that they are “very special.”

What does this say about the physical security of the Capitol and other federal buildings?

This was a tragic and altogether avoidable lapse of security. Inadequate planning and preparation endangered elected representatives and resulted in hitherto unimaginable damage and destruction. Americans have already witnessed scenes like this: last year, at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, protesters easily gained access to the building. Authorities should have ensured that there were sufficient personnel and the requisite barriers to prevent any breaches.

The 1995 bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City resulted in the permanent closure of Pennsylvania Avenue and forever changed public access to the White House. After yesterday’s events, there will likely be major changes to enhance security at the Capitol and nearby congressional offices. The knock-on effects seen in the past, such as the installment of Jersey barriers or large concrete flower pots around federal government buildings to restrict access, will likely follow this time as well.

What are your expectations for Washington, DC, ahead of the inauguration?

The effects of weeks of President Trump fomenting doubt and harnessing anger and frustration are not over. The president reiterated yesterday morning at a White House rally—thus egging on the mob—that, “We will never give up, we will never concede.” That was a green light for continued unrest.

The COVID-19 pandemic had already resulted in a uniquely reimagined inauguration. The fact that it will not entail the traditional parade and other festivities lessens the physical security challenges, since there will be few public venues or activities to police. But the unthinkable has already occurred. Those who were sufficiently emboldened to disrupt the certification of the Electoral College vote yesterday may feel encouraged, both by the president’s words and the ease with which they achieved it, to attempt to upend President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Where does the country go from here?

Until yesterday, many believed that the peaceful transition of power, the hallmark of U.S. governance for over two centuries, could never seriously be threatened. These events have undermined faith in the sanctity of American institutions and constitutional values. America is now at an epochal moment, which calls for strong moral leadership and sober reflection. The U.S. image as a bastion of democracy, rule of law, and respect for institutions has perhaps been irrevocably tarnished.

The United States has always been a place of prophetic destiny and hallowed mission—a beacon for the principles of democracy and rule of law. These beliefs are enshrined in the preamble of the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility…” After yesterday’s shameful events, the country should rededicate itself to the building of a more perfect union, through civility and respectful debate and discourse so that it can reestablish domestic tranquility and secure the blessings of liberty for all Americans.


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