A terrorism expert reacts to the siege at the Capitol

Politics professor and terrorism expert Jytte Klausen discusses the siege of the United States Capitol.

protesters at the CapitolPhoto/Getty Images

The mob at the United States Capitol

The angry mob that broke into the United States Capitol Building, fought with police and halted Congress’ certification of electoral votes have been called insurrectionists by some. Others have called them domestic terrorists.

What is the correct label? Why does this distinction matter? BrandeisNOW asked politics professor Jytte Klausen, an expert on terrorism and radicalization.

BrandeisNOW: As an expert on terrorism and radicalization, what were your thoughts as people stormed inside the Capitol?

Klausen: I immediately start thinking about incidents in history across the map that are similar and have had similar courses. What occurred at the Capitol is strikingly similar to incidents associated with incomplete democracies and mob rule instigated by authoritarian politicians. 

That said, the outcome was never in doubt, in that we knew the insurrectionists would eventually be kicked out and that they wouldn't occupy the building overnight and declare an alternative government.

How could a security failure of this scale occur, especially under such predictable circumstances?

We do not know the chain of command that caused the lack of preparedness. This was a massive failure to make a proper threat assessment and estimate the political situation caused by months and weeks of seditious propaganda on social media and pushed out by the President and his supporters. 

I am reminded of The 9/11 Commission Report’s conclusion that the cause of the failure to anticipate the 9/11 attacks ultimately was “a lack of imagination.” The intelligence was there but the pieces were never put together to form a proper threat assessment. 

The Pentagon may have wanted to heed warnings that the military should not get involved in policing lawful protesters. Another explanation is that it wasn’t a “mistake” and orders to “stand down” came from the White House and the civilian leadership in the Pentagon. We may find that all three explanations applied.

The Capitol Police and the National Guard command will have to answer critics who say they neglected their duty to protect Congress because the protesters were “white people'' from the American “heartland.” That isn’t entirely true, by the way. The Proud Boys, one of the fascist groups present at the siege, is multiracial and despite its name includes women.

You call the individuals that stormed the Capitol insurrectionists but others say they were domestic terrorists. Do you agree with that characterization?

There are many definitions applied to terrorism, both legally and sociologically. Generally speaking, what unifies all these definitions is that terrorism is an organized, violent campaign directed against civilians with the intention of causing fear and intimidation. 

Individuals can, however, be charged and convicted for sedition. What happened at the Capitol was seditious, in that civilians were trying to disrupt and undermine the constitutional government. They were delusional people that thought they could stop the change in government.

That said, we should be careful about exaggerating the risks to the state and the risk to governance in our use of terms like “domestic terrorist” and “domestic terrorism.” Certainly lawmakers, staff and media in the Capitol felt they were personally under attack — and they were  — but this was a seditious insurrection, not terrorism, and the distinction is important.

The hapless insurrectionists who took over the Capitol did not mean to harm the population. There was looting and vandalism. Previously some of the groups that form the hard core have been implicated in crimes involving racial hatred. But this was not an organized terrorist movement using violence against the general population to obtain concessions. Most of them are fantastically ignorant of the crime they committed.

How should we treat the insurrectionists who went to the Capitol with the intent to harm?

For some time, the FBI has said the biggest threat to our domestic security is not international terrorism, but groups like those who are hardcore within the masses of demonstrators at the Capitol. These more militant people were organized, but they don't represent all. 

There needs to be a serious law enforcement response. There are tools that can we can borrow from counter-terrorism. These types of ideas spread through networked social contagion. The people who came to D.C. traveled there with peers and friends. It is fair to assume that they were fired up both by belief and by the prospects of having a good time with co-believers. 

We will now hear apologists say that they acted violently because of “cancel ,” liberals who deny them their right to their “culture.” This is nonsense. There are many, many people who are economically deprived and not “listened to.” They don’t start an insurrection. They voted.

The rioters belong to a small fringe group that thrive on excitement and a sense of power. In order to put down insurrectionist behavior, we need to recognize that there is an organized core set of people and groups within the broader anti-federalist moment that is spurring on and driving those around them. These include ideologues but also opportunists who are making money from their social media presence, and unscrupulous politicians like President Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, who exploit sedition to put money in their campaign funds. 

Categories: General, Humanities and Social Sciences

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