A day after Americans were shocked by the horrifying images of a mob assaulting the nation’s Capitol, questions about the event abounded. Who were the people that did this? What did they stand for, and why were they there? Why weren’t they stopped by police? Were they treated with more deference than those who took part in Black Lives Matter? And what, if anything, can be learned from this episode to better defend Jewish communal institutions from potential threats and hate groups in the future?
We don’t have all the answers to these questions, but it is still possible to come to some conclusions about an event that will likely overshadow everything else that has happened during the four years of the Trump presidency.
As to who was there at the “Save America” rally convened by President Donald Trump in a futile and deeply destructive effort to overturn the results of the 2020 elections, it’s clear that most people who showed up were not domestic terrorists, insurrectionists or violent troublemakers. Most were Trump voters who were unhappy about the president’s defeat and believed his claim that he had won a “landslide” victory that had been “stolen” from him, even if his allegations of fraud failed to be sustained in dozens of lawsuits that were thrown out of courts around the nation.
Many of the president’s supporters feel—not entirely without reason and especially during a pandemic that had hit working-class Americans far harder than those in the educated classes—that their voices were not being heard. But that reasonable complaint became mixed with the conspiracy theories about election fraud that Trump and some of his lawyers had been floating in recent months.
That is perhaps why so much of the imagery, especially among the thousands of those who heeded Trump’s call for supporters to march on the U.S. Capitol building and to pressure Congress to overturn the election results on the day the Electoral College votes were counted, was tied up with groups linked to noxious and hateful conspiracy theories. Among them were QAnon, a loose association of extremists who promote a variety of bizarre claims, some of which were anti-Semitic.
The Proud Boys, a violent and thuggish group of pro-Trump extremists, were there in force. Also joining them were an assortment of other extremists, including neo-Nazis and those sporting racist insignia, including Confederate flags.
That didn’t mean that everyone among the tens of thousands of those in attendance at the morning Trump rally was a white supremacist or member of a hate group. Clearly, most were not, just as not all of them joined in the orgy of violence at the Capitol that when the dust settled left five people dead, including one police officer who succumbed a day later to wounds suffered during the riot.
But like anyone who finds themselves in bad company, the taint of crimes committed during that riot are attached, fairly or unfairly, to anyone who was part of a protest that turned violent. As much as it is wrong to ascribe criminal intent or behavior to people who did not engage in violence, it is fair to note that a rally that was predicated on a conspiracy theory about an election was bound to attract a disproportionate number of people who believe in all sorts of other conspiracy theories, including those promoted by hate groups.
There is nothing illegitimate about having concerns about cheating at elections, as that is something that has been going on in the United States throughout its history. But coupling that with apocalyptic rhetoric about Trump’s defeat signaling the end of the republic and a descent of the country into Marxist tyranny, as well as unsubstantiated claims about massive frauds, was bound to lead to something bad. That’s especially true when the president and his surrogates engaged in violent rhetoric and wrongly raised the hopes of his followers that their presence in Washington might lead to Congress unconstitutionally overturning the election results that would mean the end of his time in power. His belated condemnation of the violence notwithstanding, the president was clearly guilty of inciting a riot in an attempt to influence Congress—and that is something for which there is no possible excuse or justification.
As to why the mob was not prevented from besieging and then successfully storming the Capitol, answers have yet to be produced. Security there is normally quite tight. But for some as yet unknown reason, the Capitol Police were unprepared for a worst-case scenario involving the president’s supporters. It was a catastrophic failure that has already led to firings and should prompt reforms that will ensure that it never happens again.
But it’s on this point that a dispute has emerged that should not be lost in the outrage about the Capitol riot. Some, including President-elect Joe Biden, have asserted that the protesters were treated with kid gloves because they were white, and that had they been involved with the Black Lives Matter movement, they would have been treated far more harshly and with more violence.
Those echoing this charge seem to be engaging in revisionist history about the events of last summer. Far from cracking down on BLM demonstrations that were described by apologists as “mostly peaceful,” throughout the nation police largely stood down and let those who engaged in violence, looting and the destruction of property get away with it.
Much like those who showed up for Trump on Jan. 6, most of the people who turned out to protest allegations of police brutality after the death of George Floyd were innocent of any crime and merely exercising their right to demonstrate. But retroactively labeling the hundreds of BLM riots that took place in cities all across the country—that also led to attacks on government institutions and people being killed, including police officers—as somehow beyond reproach is deeply problematic. That’s true not only because extremists, including different sorts of anti-Semites, including advocates of intersectionality and hatred for Israel sometimes participated in many of those demonstrations.
Those who make this point are also essentially setting up an argument that holds some violent protests to be good while others are not. But the problem with the riot that Trump incited was not just that his conspiratorial claims about the election were untrue and his attempt to subvert the peaceful transfer of power was a betrayal of his oath of office. Rather, it’s that all acts of violence and attacks on institutions and law enforcement by mobs are illegitimate, no matter what their purported justification.
What can we learn from both the security failures and the troubling debates about what sorts of violence can be tolerated?
As Jewish institutions have learned during recent years, they must be prepared for violence of all sorts, including attacks from right-wing extremists—such as those who committed the shooting attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif.—and those motivated by very different hate groups, like Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, as well as others fomenting anti-Semitism among African-Americans that led to a surge of crimes committed against Orthodox Jews at the end of 2019.
As we saw at the Capitol, complacence or a false sense of assurance that mass demonstrations won’t turn violent or that mixing conspiracy-mongers among large crowds is not a threat can lead to a catastrophe. So, too, will complacency that a nominal security force that can be overwhelmed by rioters at any moment can keep anyone or any place safe.
The national shame of what just happened in Washington, D.C. should remind us not only that a lack of preparedness can lead to disaster. We should also understand that there is no such thing as a violent riot that can be excused because some of us happen to sympathize with its supposed purpose.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.