The ambiance in the weeks and months immediately succeeding 9/11 can and has been described in contemporary journalism and subsequent historical texts, but it’s hard to really convey the feeling of the charged national atmosphere. I was a child and only dimly aware of the political conversations, but I can vividly recall the sentiment that hung in the air: this is too much, they’ve gone too far, any response is warranted, our vaunted values and liberties have become a barrier to preventing this from happening again.
In those heady days twenty years ago, much of our political leadership and public intelligentsia fell in line, with only marginal opposition from the left. The preeminent need was to act, swiftly and resolutely. What we were left with was disastrous and never-ending wars, the death of privacy and intelligence reviewability at the hands of the PATRIOT Act, and the entire Department of Homeland Security, with all of its subsequent abuses and mission creep in viewing everything through the lens of national security.
I’ve felt perturbing pangs of familiarity in the aftermath of the siege on the Capitol last week. There are obvious differences in the scale of the mayhem and loss of life, but the sense of raw vulnerability is similar, as we come to realize that, despite years of warnings, we are utterly unprepared for a decent portion of our own population being willing and able to do battle against us in response to a warped vision of reality.
This time, cleaved as the country is, it’s many on the left who are leading the charge against what are now domestic adversaries. Democratic lawmakers are discussing new domestic terrorism legislation, while prominent liberals applaud the FBI’s use of powerful facial recognition software to identify those who were present. Pressure is mounting for the participants to face sedition and terror charges.
I understand and empathize with the impulse. After all, there’s no nebulous, far-off enemy here. The perpetrators of January 6’s putsch are readily identifiable, and they’re right here with us: our own neighbors and coworkers and bosses have acted on a naked desire to see us at best subjugated under fascistic white nationalist rule and at worst killed in the streets. It feels very raw, and we want there to be consequences. But it’s a mistake to give into the fervor.
I’m not the first to point out that giddily cheering on the expansion of law enforcement’s surveillance capabilities and the state’s ability to define and deploy resources against hazy designations like “terrorism” and “sedition” will only backfire, as there’s no conceivable trajectory where these tools don’t get used disproportionately against left-wing critics and protesters. The ACLU put out a statement pointing out the evident fact that an expansion of the infamous no-fly list being advanced by some on the left to prevent rioters from leaving D.C. would only harm communities of color in the end.
We must understand these individuals not as terrorists but as state-sanctioned actors whose leadership is just as guilty.
Yet setting aside purely practical considerations, the bloodthirst to engage in a punitive spectacle driven by heavy-handed technological surveillance and prosecutorial zeal should be embarrassing for a cohort that has spent the better part of the last decade decrying the inhumanity of our justice system, the arbitrary and discriminatory decision-making inherent in structures like the no-fly list, the brazen overreach of our numerous police and intelligence agencies, and the cesspool that is our incarceration infrastructure. These are all the same people and frameworks as they were two weeks ago, even if you temporarily agree with their targets. The FBI isn’t suddenly an organization to be trusted with greater authority, and their failure to act despite advance warning of last Wednesday’s assault demonstrates that the issue here isn’t a lack of monitoring tools.
It also misses the point about where the responsibility lies. To brand the mob as terrorists and traitors ignores their fundamental nature and the reasons they were there, in doing so letting the bigger fish off the hook. This wasn’t a spontaneous gathering of hooligans; they were there because they had been directed to be there by the head of state and encouraged by a sizable portion of the legislature. Lumping them in the same category as lone-wolf attackers and underground groups obscures the fact that these were the shock troops of a political movement with real power, up to and including the president, following the orders of people very much at the levers of our mainstream political machinery.
There are ways to hold these people responsible without sanctioning a disproportionate state response that will both harm us in the long term and run counter to our broader political objectives. Those using violence in an attempt to stop the transfer of power and install a dictator can well face social and legal consequences without a need to hand the state additional methods to crack down. True accountability is impossible without levying the same or worse at the officials who stoked and directed the crowd in the days and months leading up to January 6, as well as a healthy dose of scrutiny for the paymasters who bankrolled the operation and others like it around the country. If we want this to be anything other than an onanistic exercise that will have the side effect of lasting damage to our ideological project, we must understand these individuals not as terrorists but as state-sanctioned actors whose leadership is just as guilty.
If anyone is tried for sedition after this whole wretched ordeal, it should be Donald Trump and the repellent congressional creatures who cravenly believed they could direct the QAnon crowd and keep them in their control. The fact of their failure, their monumental miscalculation, does not absolve them of their culpability. We’re already seeing figures like the pusillanimous Missouri Senator Josh Hawley denounce the diehard supporters they’ve spent years whipping into a frenzy, no doubt breathing a sigh of relief that they have a convenient scapegoat to absorb the heat of their misdeeds.
We all feel like we’re standing on the edge of a precipice, but in egging on the trampling of civil liberties, we’re in danger of joining the modern conservative movement in signaling that our convictions are negotiable, or a convenient smoke screen obscuring a primary objective of primacy and oppression, already a pervasive fantasy in their fevered imaginations. Not that we should hit the breaks in a display of good faith to people who will never in an eon give us the benefit of the doubt, but rather out of our own compass, because our tenets aren’t fungible.
If anything, it’s during moments of crisis that it’s particularly important to remember what anchors us, and it certainly isn’t a belief in expansive law enforcement powers and a harsh and retributive penal system. Besides the fact that we would bear the brunt of this arrangement, these convictions are the only thing we have in the end. We might relish in bringing down the hammer on these easy targets, leaving our values by the wayside, but to give in is to risk that when this storm blows past, we’ll find ourselves unmoored, adrift, and unprepared for the squalls to come.