A desecration of our democracy
All the images of protesters scaling the walls of the Capitol and briefly occupying Congress will remain seared in our collective memories for decades. Some called it a riot. Others called it an insurrection. Whatever you call it, it was a desecration. The rioters desecrated the most sacred moment of our constitutional system when the nation comes together to certify our next president. That is why it is too easy to treat this like an insurrection crisis. It is far more dangerous. It is a crisis of faith.
There were some truly dangerous people in this mix, such as the agitators who had pipe bombs and ropes. Groups like the Proud Boys and antifa have fulfilled these roles in violent riots on the left and the right for years. However, the vast majority of protesters on Wednesday were nonviolent. Indeed, if this was a real effort at insurrection, we can take great comfort that many of our homegrown revolutionaries have come across as more Groucho Marx than Karl Marx. Those in the Capitol were spread across the spectrum, from mocking to menacing. There were the various costumed characters but also men in camo with suspicious backpacks. Yet the guy taking a selfie with his feet on the desk of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed more interested in Instagram than insurrection.
The ease with which protesters entered the Capitol was shocking. Despite reports in advance of their plans to march there, Capitol Police seemed undermanned and unprepared. Once inside, protesters seemed to have the run of the building. Many of them seemed as shocked as the members of Congress fleeing the House and Senate chambers. This has happened before, although not to this extent. When I was a young page in Congress, a protest by truckers led to an ornate Capitol building door getting broken down, followed by a rampage through the halls of Congress.
The media portrayed the disgraceful rioters as unimaginable. Yet it was entirely all too imaginable. We have had four years of violent protests, including the attacks on federal buildings, members of Congress, and symbols of our democracy. Former Attorney General William Barr was heavily criticized for clearing Lafayette Square last year after protesters injured numerous law enforcement officers, were injured themselves, burned a historic building, caused property damage, and threatened to breach the White House grounds. There were violent riots during the inauguration of Donald Trump and a lethal assault on some Republican lawmakers playing softball. Indeed, this year started as last year ended, with attacks on federal buildings in Portland and other cities.
Several people viewed those violent protests against the police and the White House as sedition, including Barr. I criticized such labeling of Black Lives Matter or antifa riots as sedition or terrorism. I view those labels as undermining free speech. As with the Black Lives Matter movement, I do not believe most of the protesters this week were rioters, let alone part of an insurrection. As with the protests last year, some instigators pushed for confrontations. But most were at the Capitol to voice an opposition to the certification of votes in an election they believe was stolen. I do not share that view, but it is held by some 40 percent of Americans.
What are these people if they are not insurgents or terrorists? The answer is they are faithless. We face a crisis of faith rather than of revolution. Our Constitution is an article of faith. This republic was founded by a leap of faith taken together by people of different backgrounds and beliefs. Yet the Constitution, no matter how well crafted, is ineffectual if people lose faith in its system or, just as important, in each other.
Our system is designed to give everyone skin in the game. It is meant to bring factional interests to the surface. Unlike those that ignore them, our Constitution forces those out into the open in Congress, where they can be voiced and addressed. Systems that ignore all such divisions explode from within, like in the history of France. Our system is based on a type of implosion in which those pressures are directed into Congress, where factional interests are turned into majority compromises.
The violence this week is not what James Madison hoped for in noting the factional interests in Congress. It was a bit too direct for a system based on representative democracy. However, that is precisely the point. Such action taken reflects the same crisis of faith that was evident in Lafayette Park and on the streets of Portland. That is far more dangerous than a few agitators using a protest to commit mayhem. It is not anarchy but instead alienation that we should fear the most in our nation.
For years, the public has shown a lack of trust and faith in our political system. There also is a wide rejection of the media, which once was a shared resource for information. The media has destroyed its credibility with years of bias, including blackouts on stories viewed as harmful to Democrats. Without faith in our leaders or the media, more than half of this nation appears to be untethered from the political system. That detachment is perilous for a representative government.
We need to hold accountable all those who committed violence in the Capitol. However, after we determine who stormed Congress and how they succeeded in doing it, we have a far more difficult task to address. After all, an insurrection can simply be put down, but a desecration is much more insidious and dangerous for our democracy.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.