The last few years of American politics should be seen not as an aberration from a storied history but rather as the natural progression of countless intertwined legal, cultural, and political systems of power coming to a fore. It is the result of a near total disintegration of spaces for genuine political discourse in favour of posturing in order to curry favour with whatever ‘our’ side already believes. What interests people in participating in politics are the same psycho-social principles that interest them in supporting sports teams, choosing and rooting for a side in a rivalry. And just like in sports fandoms, when people choose a political ‘team,’ they will contort various facts, opinions disguised as facts, and statistics to suit whatever agenda it is they are after (Klein 144, 2020). White backlash lies at the core of American politics and it is precisely that which drove the far(ish) right mob to storm Capitol Hill. This moment merely fulfills the logic established by hundreds of years of historical precedent.
I want to take this moment not to discuss the events on Capitol Hill but rather the response, and more specifically, the ‘Left’s’ response to the proceedings of January 6th.
Now, for the sake of being on the same page, the white supremacist, #stopthesteal, pro-Trump mob violently breached the Capitol building. Some members of the mob clearly had much more nefarious--or mischievous--intentions than others. I say this in reference to those with firearms, those assaulting officers inside, those with pipe bombs, Molotov cocktails, and the one guy who walked out with the speaker’s podium. The police presence was miniscule in comparison to the Black Lives Matter protests just a few months prior. Donald, as expected, was sympathetic to his mob before validating their belief that the election had been stolen from them. He then kindly instructed them to go home and to take pride in their skirmish.
I do hope it is obvious that I am not supportive of the attempt to overrule a popular election but I do have serious qualms with the characterization of the mob as an affront to American ideals and democracy. Donald and his supporters are a summation of America. Their greed, ignorance, and the total lack of self-awareness can be read into their nation’s histories of racism, genocide, imperialism and strange obsession with fulfilling their manifest destiny. As for the second part of that statement, I want to make this very clear, the United States of America is not, and has never been, a democracy. There are democratic elements to their political system but in no way are they accessible to all citizens nor are they even representative of the people that can vote. Elections are often heralded as the be all and end all of a democracy, and while I do not believe that to be the case, I do believe it is an important starting point of most democratic systems. With this in mind, let’s take stock of a few of the many obstacles to voting in the US; there are poll taxes, unnecessarily complex voter registration laws, bans against prisoners or ex-cons from voting in many states, ridiculous waiting times at voting booths and of course the gerrymandering epidemic led by the GOP who win a disproportionately high number of elections at all levels and branches of government even when losing the popular vote. And all this is just about the voting, add in the awful representation schema in the senate, the mess of the supreme court, filibustering and more, and what you do not get is a democratic nation. Even if voter enfranchisement was perfect, it is still only the option of choosing between a number of probably rich, probably white candidates. All of these systems are in place to uphold the status quo and work in tandem to reduce the impact of non-white, non-wealthy populations.
Now, I would like to pivot to those who want to see the mob classified as a domestic terrorist insurrection, or, more humorously, Vanilla ISIS. I find this ambition problematic. It ignores the ways in which counter-terrorism discourse and legislation are used to simultaneously invalidate the rights and genuine concerns of so-called ‘terrorists.’
The war on terror, much like the war on drugs and the red menace, is a catch-all term that has been used to validate legally dubious increases in the policing of people who fit into the stereotype of the “enemy.” The creation of an us and them is a vital part of the dehumanization process that allows governments to overstep legal and ethical boundaries without serious backlash. Terrorism is defined as the illegitimate and unlawful use of force and intimidation to advance a political agenda (Munson, 2008). It is usually, but not always, perpetuated against civilians. ‘Terrorism’ of this kind was prominent during the French Revolution as a key tool of marginalized groups to fight back against the oppressive feudal powers (Munson, 2008). Since WWII, it has become more of a pejorative despite the original use still holding some salience in many cases. Terrorism is part of a strategy to gain recognition to highlight issues that are perceived as being ignored (Munson, 2008). Islamic extremists collaborating to hijack a civilian aircraft with the intention of killing hundreds was an illegitimate and unlawful use of force and intimidation to advance a political agenda. America responding to an attack by a non-governmental actor by invading and occupying Iraq, a sovereign nation, also fits comfortably into this definition.
Counter-terrorism does not work. The ‘War on Terror’ has, more often than not, meant governments deliberately choosing not to address the destructive systems that create the necessary circumstances for terrorist insurrections in favour of oil wars and counter terrorism bills (PATRIOT Act in the US or Bill C-51 in Canada) that use the vaguely defined and (statistically) insignificant threat of terrorism to give the state sweeping powers to bypass people’s rights to not be surveilled and imprisoned without due process.
“The government does not want you to remember that they are much more likely to imprison, torture, or kill you than any terror cell” (Willson-Rymer 2020).
While I abhor the groups responsible for the Capitol Breach, I am not against occupying the building that houses an unresponsive government that prioritizes capital over constituents. I am not against reminding politicians that they are accountable to the people, not their corporate donors. I would like to see something similar from the Left when they inevitably lose another election to the outdated nonsense of the Electoral College. I’m not opposed to a bunch of white nationalists with bombs and rifles being arrested but the label of “terrorism” is a difficult one; not because they have not earned it or do not meet the criteria but rather because of the precedent it may set for future protests. The high profile nature of these cases will inevitably change the way major protests are policed in the future. I am very worried that trying the Capitol Breachers as terrorists will set a precedent for trying other, better, protesters as terrorists as well. What makes this even more concerning is that in 2020 “[b]etween May 1 and November 28, 2020, authorities were more than twice as likely to attempt to break up and disperse a left-wing protest than a right-wing one” (Koerth 2021). Higher contact with the police likely means more arrests and more convictions. Imagine this scenario where local law enforcement feels further empowered by the possibility of trying protestors as terrorists. Who do you think will be most affected by this? It’ll be the left-wing BIPOC activists organizing against injustice, not the next set of anti maskers or Q-Anon believers. What about when local police departments use to logic of counter-terrorism to further militarize their operations?
Governments will use this opportunity to further criminalize legitimate forms of protesting well into the future. Calls for increased security around public buildings will be used to invalidate the activism of non-white communities and make occupying traditional spaces of public demonstration much more dangerous. This particular display of whiteness will be used as a false equivalency to delegitimize future movements against the status quo. Counter-terrorism is used as a duality; attempts to deconstruct surveillance and suppression will be dismissed as being ‘soft-on-terror’ and thus a threat to public safety. This feedback loop is self-reinforcing and will lead to evermore increases in surveillance and suppression.
The concerns expressed above sound like a slippery slope because they are. The world is a very, very different place than it was prior to 9/11. Governments and intelligence agencies have seized at every opportunity to expand their powers and shirk accountability. We live in an age where information about every facet of our identities are held on the servers of corporate giants who look increasingly willing to cooperate with state entities. If cell phone carriers hand the location data of the Capitol Breachers to authorities then expect them to do the exact same thing in a few months when people tear down more confederate statues and expect it to be done more expediently. Expect environmental activists to be rounded up and branded as eco-terrorists. Expect harsher crackdowns on future whistleblowers. Expect governments to consolidate every bit of power available to them.
Must groups be labelled as terrorists to be considered as serious threats?
Do surveillance and policing address the circumstances that lead ‘terrorist’ groups to form? I’ll ask you to refer to the Defund the Police chants of last summer.
Would rounding up and arresting everyone who breached the Capitol dissuade people of the white supremacist sentiments they hold? Or, would it simply further radicalize their friends and families against the tyranny of the oppressive left?
I’m not saying there shouldn’t be consequences for these people but arresting and prosecuting dissenters, no matter how wrong they are, will have far reaching ramifications that may not be immediately obvious.
I implore you to tread carefully when you throw the word “terrorism” around. That kind of discourse gives space to a particular brand of tribalist sentiments used to justify further marginalizing already marginalized groups. It is imperative that we do not allow governments to hold powers that no-one should by exploiting our fears.
Klein, Ezra. 2020. Why We’re Polarized. New York, New York: Avid Reader Press
Munson, Z. (2008). Terrorism. Contexts, 7(4), 78-79. Sage Publications. Retrieved January 10, 2021, from (https://www.jstor.org/stable/41801292)
Koerth, Maggie. 2021. The Police’s Tepid Response To The Capitol Breach Wasn’t An Aberration. Five Thirty Eight. Retrieved January 15, 2021 from (https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-polices-tepid-response-to-the-capitol-breach-wasnt-an-aberration/)