Lorne Dawson

Putting the Assault on the Capitol in Perspective: Some Thoughts

By Lorne L. Dawson

From the 1960s through to the mid-1990s, far right extremism was resurgent in the United States. In this time, the focus of the movement expanded from an interlinked concern with issues of white supremacy, anti-communism, and anti-immigration to encompass such themes as the right to bear arms, tax revolts, the family farm crisis, and a general distrust of state authority, particularly towards the federal government. Hundreds of militia groups emerged across the country and began to train, with varying degrees of seriousness, for a coming race-war and the general breakdown of civil order. Then the Oklahoma City bombing occurred on April 19, 1995. Timothy McVeigh, with the help of Terry Nichols, set off a large truck bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 (including 19 children), and injuring 680 others. Protesting the results of the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco Texas in 1993, McVeigh perpetrated the single largest act of terrorism in the United States, prior to 9/11, out of sympathy for the far-right cause. The response to the attack, in terms of public repugnance and the sweeping suppression of far-right extremists by law enforcement, sharply reversed the fortunes of the far right, which, until the election of the first black president, Barack Obama, in 2008, went into a sharp decline. Since then, the far right has been resurgent once again and the number of violent incidents associated with this ideological perspective has been on the rise. Post 9/11, however, the world’s attention was understandably focused elsewhere – on the threat posed by jihadists, internationally and nationally. Then came the election of Donald Trump, and the slow but steady mainstreaming of far right ideas. The “Trump Effect” has boosted the legitimacy and expanded the base of far right extremism worldwide, culminating in the mob attack on the Capitol in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6th. Will this shocking event have an effect similar to the Oklahoma City bombing, or have far right ideas and groups insinuated themselves too thoroughly into the psyche of a significant segment of the America people?

A sweeping campaign of arrests of those involved in the invasion of the Capital is currently underway, and the tech sector has taken decisive action “de-platforming” Trump and a host of far right extremist groups and individuals. This latter action is crucial, since a key to the resurgence of the far right in the 21st century is the role of the internet and social media, which facilitated the easy spread of its ideological narrative and inflammatory rhetoric to an ever-wider audience by collapsing the old barriers of time, space, and resources. Whether this de-platforming will work, in either the short or long term, is an open question, especially since surveys continue to show that more than a third of Americans remain loyal to Trump and his specious claims that the presidential election was stolen from him. Research suggests, however, that similar efforts undertaken, much more slowly and haltingly at first, against jihadists globally have been effective. They have not crushed the jihadist movement, buy any means, as local grievances keep the movement alive, and the sophisticated proponents of its ideology are remarkably resourceful in finding new spaces online to propagate their views. They are being forced into the darker encrypted corners of cyberspace, however, where their audience is shrinking dramatically, and their chances to recruit a new generation of martyrs are being curtailed. Much the same should happen with far right extremists in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, which is positive. As is well known, though, such campaigns of suppression will harden the resolve of the core elements of the movement and heighten the desire to take retaliatory action. In the world of extremism, moreover, that action need not be sensible or proportionate, in terms of achieving a defined set of political objectives. We are confronting a form of identity politics in which symbolic gestures matter deeply, and acts of sacrificial violence on the part of a dedicated (or even deranged) few can be very cathartic. Hence the grave concern expressed by the FBI in its bulletin warning of possible attacks on state capitals and in Washington once again before the inauguration of President elect Joe Biden on Jan. 20th. Vigilance is now the order of the day and, given the mass appeal of the far right ideas Trump coyly legitimized for more than four years, few doubt the need to extend this vigilance well into Biden’s first term.

Regrettably, it is likely that some will attempt to harm or even assassinate those who have dared to thwart Trump’s agenda. As video footage of recent confrontations between Trump supporters and members of Congress, in airports and elsewhere, suggests, only a thin veneer of civility and fear of retribution is stopping clashes between polarized Americans from devolving into the kind of disturbing violence witnessed on Jan. 6th. This civility, however, is crucial, and we must seek to maintain it at all costs. It is an important daily element of the social order that we take for granted but an element that must be replenished continuously – especially after Trump’s assault on our sensibilities in this regard. Larger efforts must be undertaken, of course, to address the reasons why so many American’s feel uncertain of their place in the future, while nonetheless promoting greater social equity and justice – a very tall order. But order itself is the first prerequisite.

Here are three relevant links to additional information:

Arie Perliger, Deciphering the Second Wave of the American Militia Movement

Amarnath Amarasingam, Does Deplatforming Work? A quick survey of literature in the wake of the Capitol Hill Attack

Tanya Mehra and Joana Cook, An Attack on the Capitol and Democracy: An Act of Terrorism?

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