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The Storming of Capitol Hill: Implications for US Polity

Savini Mehta is Intern at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi Click here for detail profile.
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  • March 25, 2021

    The January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol, the seat of the country’s legislature, by an angry mob that sought to disrupt the confirmation process of Joseph Biden’s election as US President, resulted in the death of five people, while over a hundred were injured. The looting and the vandalism by hundreds of armed rioters, inflamed by the calls of the incumbent president, Donald Trump, to “save America”, following Biden’s victory in the 2020 US presidential elections, lasted for several hours.1 Biden won 306 Electoral College votes, as against Trump’s 232 and was able to swing key states such as Georgia in his favour, which historically supported Republican candidates.

    The assault sparked widespread condemnation. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director, Christopher Wray, declared that the riot was an incident of domestic terrorism.2 Republican lawmakers, such as Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama and Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, among others, charged that members of Antifa, a Left-wing political movement, came disguised as pro-Trump supporters and committed the assault, despite the lack of any evidence supporting such claims.3

    Reports instead flagged White Supremacists, some of whom were already on the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database, as having participated in the attack.4 The FBI has since charged over 300 persons, including members of militias such as the far-right ‘Oath Keepers’ and the neo-fascist ‘Proud Boys’.5

    Domestic political violence in the US

    The US has had a long history with domestic terrorism. The 1970’s witnessed an incendiary wave of Left-wing extremism. The Vietnam War, racial tensions and the growing fervour of anti-establishment sentiments, particularly amongst the college-aged youth, contributed to the emergence of such an ideology.6 Even groups such as the ‘Weather Underground Organization’ (WUO) that violently railed against war policies, racial inequality and corporate practices, or fringe outfits such as the ‘Symbionese Liberation Army’ (SLA), a revolutionary anarchist group, attempted to rouse the general public to their cause.7

    Another phenomenon of public violence fairly unique to the US is mass shootings and gun violence. Although most perpetrators are not driven by purely political factors to commit such acts of violence, incidents such as the 2016 Orlando shooting, stand out. Nearly 50 people were killed by an American gunman who pledged allegiance to ISIS.8

    The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, perpetrated primarily by Timothy McVeigh, killed 168 people and injured nearly 700. This was the highest number of casualties in US history as a result of a domestic terrorist act. McVeigh was an extremist radicalised due to White supremacist and anti-government views.9 He was especially upset at the 1993 FBI raid on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, which housed members of a cult. McVeigh was hanged in June 2001.

    The September 11, 2001 attacks, the most devastating terrorist attacks on American soil, resulted in a more active US counter-terrorism engagement overseas, including regime change efforts in places like Iraq, at enormous cost to US lives and exchequer. Domestically, after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created and stringent legislations like the Patriot Act, were enacted.

    Far-right movements have been fairly ubiquitous within the fabric of the American polity, with groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, representing a particular tradition of extremism rooted within the notion of White supremacy. The 1980’s saw a startling rise in far-right support and mobilisation — perhaps due to the traction populist rhetoric on issues like elitism and free trade gained, distinct from the historical brutalities associated with far-right ideologies like Nazism and Fascism, a trend that further escalated in the 21st Century.10

    Far-right extremism coupled with White supremacist ideology has since formed a fairly volatile concoction. The 2017 Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally organised by Neo-Nazi and self-proclaimed ‘alt-right’ leader, Richard Spencer, was attended by hundreds of members of far-right militant organisations.11

    The rally sparked counter-protests and incidents related to it claimed the lives of three and injuries to over 30 people. Critics charged that Spencer’s views on White superiority and extremism were not condemned strongly by Trump, given the fact that he declared those participating in the rally, as well as those publicly opposing it, as “fine people”.12

    Going forward

    Despite the stark political polarisation, the successful transfer of power from Trump to Biden does indicate the strength of the US political system and processes. The Biden administration, meanwhile, is exploring the possibility of enacting a domestic terrorism law.13

    Although the Capitol Hill attack was termed as an act of ‘domestic terrorism’ by heads of law enforcement agencies like the FBI, perpetrators are not being prosecuted on domestic terrorism charges as existing US laws do not have such enabling provisions.14

    Furthermore, despite a general consensus on the fact that there is a necessity to focus inward rather than solely externally when it comes to counter-terrorism, there are still contentions regarding the nature, purpose and implications of a domestic terrorism law.

    The debate relates to whether there exists a need for a new legislation or whether there is simply a problem with enforcing existing legislations that already contain provisions against terror financing, enhanced surveillance and other domestic security measures, including border security, among others. Possible conflicts with the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and assembly and the Second Amendment’s assurance that any citizen may bear arms, is also being debated.15

    The US, it seems, still has an arduous path to traverse in order to deal more effectively with issues such as White supremacy and domestic terrorism.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.