On Wednesday, there was a riot on the Capitol Hill. A violent mob broke their way inside the building, causing elected legislators to scatter and hide.
It was a shameful, disgusting event. Sure, people are free to protest and demonstrate, though such tools are best employed by those who are not in power. It is pathetic – to say the least – to see the US President calling for a demonstration; and it is irresponsible for him to use language that sounds like dog whistle for mischief.
There is a fundamental guarantee for our safety and freedom: the rule of law. And the rule of law is based on one key principle: that the state has the absolute monopoly on the use of coercive force.
I can condone the use of violence (certain levels of violence, directed at certain targets, in certain limited circumstances) against tyrannical regimes opposed to the rule of law. I recognise the right to resort to violence in legitimate defence situations, where the rule of law does not provide effective protection. But – outside these exceptions – violence is a crime, not a form of protest. And a crime is a crime is a crime, irrespective of who commits it – whether supporters of Donald Trump, whether activists of Antifa or ‘Extinction Rebellion’ militants. ‘Protesting’ means carrying placards, waving flags and shouting slogans – not breaking windows and smashing furniture; and most certainly not threatening or hurting people.
What happened at the Capitol in Washington DC was a violent riot, not a ‘protest’. And whoever incited it – let alone participated in it – committed a crime. They should be apprehended, investigated, tried in a court of law and, if found guilty, punished in accordance with the law. And that goes for everybody – from the President of the United States to the most humble janitor. The rule of law is only the rule of law if applied equally to everybody.
Keep cool and believe in democracy
Violence is always disgusting – even more so when committed in the name of perceived ‘justice’. It’s even more appalling when this occurs in the very home of democracy.
But while we uphold the rule of law and decry violations thereof, we must also – to use a rather irreverential American phrase – keep our pants on. Responding to violence with hysteria is not smart, not helpful – and often not honest, either. We should keep things in proportion. That’s more than the mainstream media did, on this occasion.
Writing in the Guardian, for instance, columnist Rebecca Solnit lamented:
On Wednesday, a coup attempt was led by the president of the United States.
A similarly hysterical tone was stricken by some politicians. Here’s Sen. Elizabeth Warren:
The violence at the Capitol today was an attempted coup and act of insurrection egged on by a corrupt President to overthrow our democracy.
That’s ‘a bit’ of an exaggeration, I’d say. A coup is an organised, deliberate attempt to seize power. It typically involves military units or other security forces, who intend to take control of the centres of power in the state: the government, legislature, courts and means of communication. An insurrection is a mass uprising. Neither nouns accurately (or honestly) describe what happened on Capitol Hill. Anyone viewing the footage with an open mind will see it for what it was :a riot; a mob of a few hundred people, with neither leadership nor clear intentions or purpose. A riot which – were it not for the lax security and the unpreparedness of the police – would have ended in an hour or so, with a few minor injuries at most.
Compare Wednesday’s events with a real attempted coup – even one poorly organised and executed: in 1981, a Spanish general (and supporter of the former militarist dictator Franco) rebelled against the country’s fledgling democracy. The rebels started by declaring a state of emergency in one of the provinces. Tanks were brought into the streets; the radio and TV stations were taken over by rebel army detachments; and a group of 200 soldiers stormed the country’s parliament, taking about 350 MPs hostage. The rebels eventually surrendered, but only when confronted by loyalist army units.
On Wednesday in Washington DC, lives (perhaps even the lives of elected parliamentarians) were recklessly put at risk; but, histrionic statements notwithstanding, democracy was never in danger. Let us remember that, more than once in the country’s history, US democracy easily survived even the assassination of a President.
In fact, if the riot (and its dismal outcome) proved anything – it demonstrated the strength of that democracy: once the violence became apparent, hardly anyone of any consequence expressed support for it; Republican governors, senators and representatives condemned it; a few members of the cabinet resigned in protest; and ultimately Trump himself called to “remain peaceful […] respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue”.
The riot deserves unreserved condemnation; but I’m afraid that those turning their eyes to the skies and decrying it as a ‘direct attack on democracy’ do so mostly out of dishonest political interest, rather than genuine concern.
While the media and a rather phoney-sounding chorus of Western leaders were focused on the annoying, but ultimately inconsequential events in Washington DC, a real and much more significant attack on democracy was taking place unhindered and largely un-condemned: the Hong Kong police conducted mass arrests of former -pro-democracy lawmakers and other political activists critical of the People’s Republic and its increasingly oppressive rule over Hong Kong. These individuals are accused of ‘subverting state power’ and – in accordance with the latest ‘security’ legislation, may be extradited to the famously tender love and care of the government in Beijing.
Let’s get things straight, folks: the USA will remain a democracy – I promise you; as for Hong Kong…
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark
That’s not to say that all is well in USA – far from it. What we see is a divided, polarised society. And, contrary to what some pundits would want us to believe, this is not all Trump’s doing. In fact, the processes that gradually led to this situation have been at work for decades. And – like in most broken up families – both sides are equally to blame.
I am a liberal at heart. I crave a kinder, juster society; one that encourages competition, but does not allow the powerful to ride roughshod upon the weak. A place that offers everybody equal opportunities – though not necessarily equal outcomes.
But let me make a confession: I am 100% in favour of evolution and 0% for revolution. Sure, we need to change things; but not every change is for the better. That’s why the ‘progressives’ who call for change are no more and no less legitimate than the ‘conservatives’ who challenge it. In my view, to make real, genuine progress, a society needs to balance the two impulses. Checks and balances are essential for a democracy not just to function, but also to evolve.
Most people are political moderates. But, increasingly, it feels like the agenda has been hijacked by the political extremes: on one side the supremacists who would take us back to a dark, best forgotten past; on the other, a wokeocracy intent on dragging us, volens-nolens, to a weird, undesirable future.
The extremes are, by definition, militant. But we, the ponderous, mostly silent and often apathetic majority, do ourselves no favours when we get caught up in their immoderate polemic.
Let’s watch our language – it is important. Let’s handle carefully our social fabric – lest we tear it apart. The language of political campaigns is one thing; but we, who aren’t politicians, should disagree without delegitimising.
I watched – with concern – the riot at the Capitol. But I experienced real heartbreak when the unthinking, sheep-like media called the rioters ‘Trump supporters’. What a mistake! Beyond dishonest spin, the US has had fair, free elections. More than 74 million people have voted for Donald Trump; but how many of them broke into the Capitol? Describing criminal offenders as ‘Trump supporters’ is delegitimising language; it generates (or entrenches and exacerbates) a sense of alienation, of being held in contempt and dismissed. Intolerance breeds intolerance; bigotry creates more bigotry.
Contrary to the cliché, 74 million people can be wrong (so can 81 million). But dismissing them en-masse as Neanderthals is the real threat to democracy. Beyond a thin layer of extremists, their concerns are legitimate; their intentions untainted. No, they do not wish to kneel on any black neck; nor do they want to be called rednecks, or ‘white nationalists’. Let’s take colours out of our political lexicon, shall we? Let’s be colour-blind.
Democracy works by debate and persuasion; it’s the dictatorship that uses dictates and coercion.
By all means disagree with them, if you wish; but listen with respect and empathy. Don’t treat them with disdain: overconfidence is the mark of the stupid.
By all means persuade them, if you can; but don’t try to bully them into compliance with your own views; don’t attempt to impose your own political correctness on them – that shows weakness, not strength.
Joe Biden, congratulations: you’ve won the elections; come 20 January, you will be the new (and the only) President of the United States. You’re even likely to have a sympathetic, relatively supportive Congress. But you and your administration would do well to seek to understand the 74 million. On 3 November 2020, they were still ‘Trump supporters’; on 20 January 2021, they should be nothing but fellow Americans. Accept them and they will accept you.