Who Should We Scrutinize after the Stop the Steal Riot at the Capitol?
A lack of critical thinking is undermining America
At the end of the Stop the Steal rally in Washington DC on Jan 6, 2021, a relatively small number of Trump supporters forced their way into the Capitol building, caused property damage, and allegedly engaged in seditious conspiracy. I say ‘relatively small’ because in comparison to the number of people who showed up, those who illegally entered the Capitol were relatively few. Lest you think I’m an apologist for their actions, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I’m not, and for good reason. Some of Trump’s supporters ruthlessly beat USCP officer Brian Sicknick to death outside the Capitol building. That is reprehensible. The people who murdered Sicknick were not interested in law and order, and they must face justice. I presume they will, and I hope that will happen as quickly and as fairly as possible. That’s what the US criminal justice system is supposed to guarantee — in theory, anyway.
Another Trump supporter, Ashli Babbitt, was shot and killed by Capitol Police. Whatever Ms. Babbitt’s political views might have been, her murder was reprehensible. Yes, she was involved in a legally questionable protest action and possible seditious conspiracy. No doubt there was plenty of opportunity for human error in that highly volatile situation, but the person responsible for her death must face charges, especially if she was unarmed. The Capitol building is not a personal residence. Illegally breaking and entering — or just entering (I have no idea if Babbitt broke windows) — is not grounds for execution. No one, especially not a police officer, may serve as judge, jury, and executioner. The police had no right to shoot and kill her just as they have zero right to shoot and kill unarmed people of color. If social justice activism is your thing, Sicknick and Babbitt’s tragic deaths present a unique moment to unite outraged conservatives with the Black Lives Matter movement. If you are in either of those camps and are not working to achieve that, take a step back and reflect on your ethical commitments.
Three others lost their lives due to medical related stress, including a Trump supporter who accidentally tased himself, triggering a heart attack from which he died. Some on social media found it amusing that a middle-aged man electrocuted his own testicles to cause his own death. I don’t think any deaths should be diminished, especially deaths that occur under highly politicized circumstances. We laugh in the face of great horror to come to grips with the truly terrible, but now is not the time. People committed to identity politics might say I only care about his case because I have testicles. It’s true, I do, and that’s why I say stop laughing. That dude’s death isn’t funny; it’s tragic, stupid, and sad. (Maybe that’s why people laugh.) If you want to question something, ask why a white late middle-aged man thought it was OK to enter the Capitol with a taser. The answer reveals a lot, I think.
One of the aspects of this disconcerting event involves how people, and here I mean centrist liberals, uncritically accept what they see, hear, and read in the media. I take it as given that the same applies to conservatives who get received wisdom from their outlets of choice. The inability to think critically is dangerous, and I want to explore why. Critical thinking is important because it enables us to ask questions that drive to the heart of deeper matters, and we need that now more than ever.
The Modern Origins of Uncritical Thought
The lack of critical thought became the norm in the wake of 9/11. As Glenn Greenwald points out, with Congresswoman Barbara Lee as his example, anyone who dared question the decision to give George W. Bush authorization to wage war after 9/11 was smeared as unpatriotic and un-American. The lack of critical thought that enabled those denunciations — and, ultimately, the hundreds of thousands of deaths from America’s ensuing invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq — persists today. People are still dying in those countries. I don’t think any deaths should be diminished, especially deaths that occur under highly political and legally questionable circumstances.
I’d venture to say that the inability to think critically is a hallmark of what it means to be American. Truth be told it’s not just an American trait, but it thrives in the United States. Consider the following example. People who watch MSNBC and CNN allowed themselves to be duped into believing Robert Mueller’s failed Russiagate investigation. Goaded by Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, and Lawrence O’Donnell (among many other so-called journalists), viewers and readers waited on the edge of their seats for Trump to be hauled off to jail in handcuffs for conspiring, so the story went, with Vladimir Putin to steal the 2016 election from Hillary Clinton. Why do I say duped? Because Aaron Maté, writing at The Nation, debunked Russiagate in real-time. For his efforts he won an Izzy Award. Those who fell for the Russiagate charade did not critically interrogate what they were fed in the media. Their lack of critical thought, just like Trump’s misguided supporters who breached the Capitol, is one of the results of a country deeply divided along partisan lines. Just as those divisions are stoked to shore up political support, so too are they stoked by media outlets for profit. Like money made from the duping of viewers and readers, politics built on the lack of critical thought does not bode well for society. I’d go so far as to say it portends society’s demise.
The lack of critical thinking on the so-called Left disturbs me because in the era of social media, people do not simply believe what they are told but share views, opinions, and impressions that closely align with their own at breakneck speed. (To an extent I do too, but I do my best to double check stories before I share them. I’m not perfect though. I’ve shared BS in the past. I’m human, after all. Aren’t you? At least I can be honest about it. Can you?) Sharing without critical reflection leads to political consensus even when we are not yet sure of what the truth actually is. (For the record, the construction of truth is an intersubjective process that unfolds over time. In other words, it happens through people and takes a while.) Today, echo chambers no longer simply shape the opinions of people who occupy them, partisan opinions reverberate quickly to become political orthodoxy. In societies where people undervalue or do not engage in critical thought, anyone who questions prevailing views is denounced. Consider the following example. Two days after the riot at the Capitol, someone on Twitter accused me of being ‘the problem’ simply because I questioned the official narrative. Since when is critical thought the problem? 9/11 at least. That says a lot about the state of America today. We’re in very dangerous territory. More examples will help demonstrate what I mean.
The Riot at the Capitol: Coup, Insurrection, Terrorism, or Sedition?
Look how quickly the word ‘coup’ was used to describe how Trump’s supporters breached the Capitol. Caitlin Johnstone was the first to point out why it was dangerous to call what happened a coup. She’s right because the United States has a long history of fomenting coups all over the world. If you need a reference book on this subjct, William Blum’s Killing Hope is an excellent start. But look at how the Oxford English Dictionary defines coup and ask yourself if it applies to what transpired at the Capitol.
If you think coup is the right word, ask yourself how many coups, successful or not, have been undertaken by unarmed people. How many of those who breached the Capitol were armed? Does anyone know? More importantly, coups are often carried out by military leaders, typically in conjunction with opposition politicians. Did military leaders have a hand in planning or executing the breach at the Capitol? That’s a question I would like answered because it took the Joint Chiefs of Staff a full six days to condemn these events. Didn’t the Joint Chiefs take an oath to uphold the Constitution and protect the country? It seems strange to me that it would take them so long to issue a condemnation for obviously condemnable acts.
Coups are carried out by military leaders in cahoots with opposition politicians. Did that happen here? I don’t think so. Since Trump is still president, Joe Biden is, technically speaking, the opposition leader — albeit in waiting, the president-elect. Did Biden direct Trump’s hoodlums to breach the Capitol? I doubt it. In fact it seems downright illogical. But an investigative journalist would pursue that line of inquiry until it was no longer tenable. Sadly, there are few investigative journalists in US media today, due mainly to the highly partisan nature of the media and the money that can be made by adhering to prevailing orthodoxies. Critical thinking is one way to avoid pigeonholing yourself in partisan boxes.
The way I see it, Trump’s misguided followers engaged in neither a coup nor an attempted coup. They smeared themselves with patriotic face paint, wore flags as capes, sang patriotic songs, broke windows, illegally entered the Capitol, took selfies with Capitol Police, and posed next to historic statues in the rotunda. Nevertheless, centrists on social media argued that Trump’s supporters were hell-bent on overthrowing the government. Talking points include “They had flex-cuffs!” and “They erected gallows!” and “They chanted ‘Hang Mike Pence!’” To be clear, all of that is disturbing. But does it rise to the level of a coup? I don’t think so. At best these people wanted to disrupt the congressional procedure to certify the Electoral College vote. (Don’t get me started on the Electoral College. That institution is undemocratic by design.) If disrupting a congressional procedure is all it takes to overthrow a government, we’re in deeper doo doo than I thought. Some readings of the seditious conspiracy statute claim that it is, as Devin Schindler stated in USA Today. He might be right, but it would take a maximalist interpretation to conclude they wanted to overthrow the government.
Those who embraced the coup argument did not give it much thought. They just regurgitated what they heard in the media. Tellingly, media outlets no longer describe the events as a coup. By Jan 11th CNN’s Wolf Blitzer described it as an insurgency. Likewise, he called the perpetrators insurgents. Per its definition, an insurrection denotes a violent uprising or revolt against an authority or government, and the words Blitzer used are derived from it. To my mind, this seems more accurate. However, insurrection also refers to any attempt to violently overthrow a government. Were the protestors interested in overthrowing the government? I don’t think so. If that were true, it would mean that they wanted to depose Trump, Pence, and other elected officials. They were apparently also after Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer — driven, no doubt, by years of malicious denunciations in rightwing media. If you need a break from this article and want to listen to a creative take on how the media is stunting the United States, see the spoken word section of my song “Maga Choads” for more.
Incidentally, slave rebellions in the United States are still referred to as insurrections. Think about that. No, I mean really think about that because it says a lot about who defines words and why.
Back to the Capitol breach. Unless some manifesto emerges, I won’t be calling the actions of Trump’s misguided supporters an insurrection. They wanted to disrupt the certification of the Electoral College to prevent a future government from forming. A congressional procedure is not the U.S. government. It is a procedure. Those who breached the Capitol might be charged with seditious conspiracy for trying to prevent that. If so, charge and try them. Yet Congress did eventually certify the vote. If Trump’s misguided supporters were as well organized and powerful as some people claim, then they didn’t do a very good job.
Words like ‘anarchists’ and ‘terrorists’ and ‘terrorism’ have also been used to describe the perpetrators and their actions. If you’re not familiar with the definitions of those words, look them up and ask yourself if they apply before accepting those characterizations as true. For damaging property, those who breached the Capitol have been called anarchists. That’s incorrect, and if you don’t understand why, I suggest you review the history of anarchism in the United States. In brief, the words ‘anarchy’ and ‘anarchist’ have been deliberately misused to delegitimize organized labor following the Haymarket Affair of 1886. Ditto the words terrorism and terrorists, which are always only used to describe what others do, or attempt to do, to the United States and its allies — and never to what the U.S. does to its own citizens or other countries. Ask yourself why that is. If you do, congratulations. You’re engaging in critical thought.
As noted, some protestors brazenly called for the hanging of Vice President Pence. That is reprehensible, but Mike Pence is not the U.S. government. He is one agent of the government. Still, those caught on video calling for his hanging could be charged with seditious conspiracy. If so, fine. Do it.
An actual insurrection would involve seizing, or an attempt to seize, all three branches of government— or, if we’re honest about where real power lies in the United States, the Pentagon. Again, unless a manifesto appears, Trump’s followers had no such plans. They’re might be dumb, but they’re not that dumb. So too is anyone who advanced this fallacious argument, and it is not hard to understand why. Suppose for the sake of argument some of the protestors had managed to get into the hall where both chambers of Congress had assembled. Are we really to believe that these protestors would not have been overcome by members of Congress, or that armed guards wouldn’t have handled the situation promptly with lethal force? (Remember Ashli Babbitt?) Both scenarios are not only probable but extremely likely. Besides, the legislative branch is just one part of government. Disrupting it and its procedures for a couple hours is not the same as the violent overthrow, or an attempted violent overthrow, of a government. It may be seditious conspiracy, but I don’t think it rises to the maximalist charge.
And what about the word sedition? That term has been defined differently at different times in American history, typically to serve those in power. I find that alarming because it goes to show how power works to protect itself. The argument here is that Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and other conservative politicians may have incited the demonstrators to breach the Capitol. Trump claims — rightly, I think — that he never advocated that specific action. Giuliani, however, did mention the need for ‘combat.’ Given how the protestors killed officer Sicknick and smashed windows to break into the Capitol, Giuliani might be guilty of incitement. If that’s the case, charges should be brought against him and argued in a court of law. Not the court of public opinion, mind you, but an actual court — the Supreme Court, for instance. If so, charge, try, and prosecute him to the fullest extent possible. But to do that one would have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Giuliani’s words motivated supporters to break into the Capitol. In the video I watched, neither Trump nor Giuliani explicitly advocated that. They’re might dumb but they’re not that dumb. Maybe I missed something.
What about the often misused word terrorism? To my mind, terrorism doesn’t apply because at one point, protestors walked calmly single-file through the rotunda. That doesn’t strike me as particularly violent. (To be sure, breaking windows is violent. Is the property OK?) Ultimately, a tiny number of those who breached the Capitol sat in chairs they were not authorized to sit in and put their feet up on desks they were not authorized to put their feet on. One carried off a lectern. Is that the new definition of terrorism? Not in this or any other world, I hope. One allegedly stole a laptop from Nancy Pelosi’s office. Is that terrorism? No. It is theft. Charge the perpetrators accordingly.
The cavalier use of the word terrorism is dangerous because the United States has been ruthlessly prosecuting the War of Terror for two decades. (Yes, the War of Terror, not War ‘on’ Terror as has been drilled into our heads.) The U.S. has been dropping bombs carte blanche on people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and other countries for 20 years. That’s terrorism. The same applies to what the U.S. did to Latin American countries in the 1980s; likewise the people of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the 1960s and 70s and Korea in the early 1950s. Ditto the firebombing of Japanese cities in WW2 and what the U.S. did to the Philippines across multiple administrations in the early 20th century. In short, the United States has been the chief exporter of state-sponsored terror for over 100 years. Domestically, it has been the perpetrator of terror since the colonial era. Brutal chattel slavery? Terror. Indigenous genocide? Terror. The brutal and criminal lynching of African Americans from Reconstruction until today? Terror. The War on Drugs and how it disproportionately targets communities of color? Terror. Trump’s misguided followers tromping around the Capitol and disrespecting Nancy Pelosi’s office? Call it what it is: breaking and entering, bad manners, and petty theft. Yet centrists parrot use of the word terrorism in the media because they do not engage in critical thinking. Think, people!
Seditious conspiracy and incitement seem to be the only words that apply. If those are the charges, pursue them in the courts. Further, do it in the Supreme Court. Moreover, let C-SPAN broadcast those trials on live television. It is long past time the citizens of the United States got see what transpires in the highest court in the land. It won’t happen though. Opacity is vital for the process of justice in the Supreme Court. Video and audio recording devices are not allowed. What does that tell you?
So far I’ve attempted to show how the misuse of words to describe the Stop the Steal rally, the ensuing riot, and the breach of the Capitol resulted from a lack of critical thinking. There are other examples worth considering.
High Octane Accusations, Cult of Personality Politics & Retweet Armies
Democrats and Republicans have been hurling accusations at each other at lightning speed. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has lead the charge on the social media front. She’s got nearly 12 million followers on Twitter. Whatever AOC posts is not only liked but quickly retweeted, and seemingly without much, if any, critical reflection. Chuck D of the rap group Public Enemy shared one of AOC’s posts on Instagram. He has also shared posts from Nancy Pelosi’s Twitter feed in the past. Poor Chuck. He used to be an important voice. Swept up in the political expediency of the moment, his once astute brain now appears susceptible not only to poisonous partisan politics but a lack of critical thought.
The Retweet Army recirculates AOC’s talking points because she is the current political darling of the so-called Left. The lack of critical thinking in cult of personality politics is extremely dangerous. Aren’t Donald Trump and his followers guilty of the same thing? Through Trump’s Twitter account, his followers shared whatever he posted. (I’d include a screenshot, but Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey decided it was in the country’s best interest to ban Trump permanently.) What about Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or other major politicians who utilize social media? They post bullshit too, and their followers retweet it. I know what you’re thinking: “But AOC is RIGHT! She speaks TRUTH! YAAS, queen. Preach. SLAY!!” Does she?
The AOC post Chuck D shared suggests that Trump prevented the National Guard from mobilizing to get the riot under control. That could be true; however, without any supporting evidence, Ocasio-Cortez is speculating. Again, why did the Joint Chiefs of Staff wait a full six days to officially condemn the breach? Do they know something we don’t? Does AOC? This particular post got lots of likes and retweets. If the allegations are true, they are damning. But the responsibility to decide whether or not to send in the Guard belonged to the Department of Defense. AOC knows this because she retweeted a memo from the DC Council stating as much.
Later, AOC claimed Trump was trying to cover his tracks.
Does she have inside information? Did her followers think critically about these assertions, or are they liking and sharing because they wish it were true? Again, why did it take the Joint Chiefs of Staff a full six days to condemn the riot and the breach? These are the types of questions that can be asked if one thinks critically.
For me, the best part all of this is that AOC follows Juan Guaidó on Twitter. Given that Guaidó declared himself the interim president of Venezuela in a US-backed coup (with Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, among other government officials, in supporting roles), AOC has very little credibility here. She follows someone who attempted an actual coup!
Investigative journalists Dan Cohen and Anya Parampil do too, but I suspect that’s because they have an interest in Guaidó’s statements and actions regarding Venezuela. The same goes for Alfred de Zayas, who openly criticized Guaidó’s brazen actions in real-time. Do AOC’s fans care? Apparently not. They have been conditioned by the media and their thought leaders to loathe Trump, and that’s all that matters. There is an excellent chance many of them uncritically lapped up the Russiagate fiasco, too. If you’re interested in living in and supporting democratic societies, you should find this extremely disconcerting.
What about other politicians? Sorry Berners (or Bern-outs), but Bernie Sanders plays a role here, too. In typical Sanders fashion, Bernie (or whoever manages his Instagram account) stated that Donald Trump would go down as the worst president in history.
I responded with a litany of transgressions committed by US presidents in reverse chronological order stretching all the way back to 1776. (With slavery and indigenous genocide, one could go back even further.) No response from whoever manages Bernie’s Instagram account, and no pushback from his followers. I take that as a sign that there are still some Berners who think critically, but maybe no one read my comment. I posted a similar litany on a long Twitter thread. There were few, if any, responses. To be fair, I don’t have many followers — I’m no AOC — but the veracity of my claims stands, and I challenge anyone to argue otherwise. Has Trump been a terrible president? No doubt. The worst in history? Only if you don’t know history, and let’s be honest: how many Americans do? Our education system is terrible, one measure of which is how people do not think critically. Perhaps the fixation on STEM education is eroding the public’s ability to think.
Some of you might feel none of this matters. I profoundly disagree. Let’s consider my third and final example to examine why the lack of critical thinking is not only dangerous, but serves those in power.
Dereliction of Duty: Who Knew What and When?
WBUR, the NPR affiliate in Boston, conducted an interview with Malcolm Nance, who the anchor introduced as a ‘national security analyst.’ As it turns out, Nance is a former Naval officer specialized in cryptology. The interview was remarkable for a number of reasons. First, Nance performed righteous indignation. The anger in his voice, as the NPR anchor acknowledged, was palpable. But what does it amount to? “Feelings! Nothing more than feelings!” Think I’m joking? Go listen to Nance’s interview. He performed outrage for a reason. It goads listeners into being angry, afraid, and, importantly, not to ask questions. That’s dangerous because as a recent scientific study shows, anger makes people susceptible to misinformation. That was the case after 9/11, and that is the case now. In my view, that is the only meaningful comparison that can be drawn between the two events.
In the same interview, Nance stated the following: “I monitor right-wing extremist chat groups, their Telegram channels, their private internet forums. And we saw this coming a long time ago.” Oh yeah? Do tell. I have a number of follow-up questions the NPR anchor did not bother asking. First, what does Nance mean when he says he monitors right-wing extremist chat groups? Does he, or a team he manages, listen in? If so, how? Like many messaging services, Telegram is purportedly encrypted end-to-end. That means only those who use it are privy to the communiques. How does Nance know what protestors said on Telegram? As for monitoring private internet forums, how does Nance, or any team he might manage, do that? Do they pose as right-wingers to collect intelligence, or do they use surveillance tools to vacuum up whatever is communicated in those allegedly private forums? It could be both, of course. Was it?
Importantly, what does Nance mean when he says “we saw this coming a long time ago”? If Nance and other government employees knew what was being planned, when did they know it? (Again, why did it take the Joint Chiefs of Staff six days to condemn the riot and breach?) To whom, if anyone, did Nance or his team communicate that knowledge? If they forwarded that info to government officials, who decided not to take any precautions? These are the hugely important questions we must ask. If Malcolm Nance had prior knowledge, if he communicated it to others, and if no one took any necessary precautions, he and they could be brought up on charges. What kind of charges? Aiding and abetting a riot, at least, and seditious conspiracy at worst. Personally, I would like to see him charged with surveilling private communications. If true, I’d like to see a civil suit brought against the government and Telegram. A successful civil lawsuit could be lucrative. It might also create the leverage we need to challenge government surveillance, which is a violation of 4th Amendment protections.
These questions do not only apply to Nance. What about DC Mayor Muriel Bowser or Steven Sund, the chief of the Capitol Police who has resigned? Law enforcement always prepares for demonstrations before they take place. It’s standard operating procedure. If you want to lawfully assemble to protest, especially on the scale of the Stop the Steal rally, you have to apply for a permit. According to the Washington Post, an organization called Women for America First requested a permit for Stop the Steal from the National Parks Service in early November 2020. The same article claims that the permit had, at the time of writing, not been granted. (Permits are typically granted one week in advance.) But if it was granted, then the Capitol Police should have been prepared. No excuses. Only the willfully ignorant would have been unaware of the anger in Trump’s base. The media reported on it widely leading up to the Jan 6th rally.
I am not advocating for more draconian policing. I am simply asking if — and if so, when — Capitol Police knew of the demonstration. This is important because they were woefully unprepared. Worse still, though surprising to no one with a pulse, they allowed protestors to breach the Capitol. This is a severe dereliction of duty, and some members of the force are now being suspended and arrested. If it is reasonable to arrest and charge anyone who breached the Capitol, we might consider charging Sund for aiding and abetting a riot. What did he know, and when did he know it? The same goes for Mayor Bowser. What about the members of Congress who gathered to certify the Electoral College vote? What did they know, and when did they know it? These are very reasonable questions that need to be pursued as rigorously as Trump’s misguided supporters and low level police officers. As of this writing, NBC News reports that the FBI was aware of criminal plots of seditious conspiracy. Why didn’t the FBI take necessary precautions? Should they be charged with seditious conspiracy for not coming forward in a timely manner? That the FBI is trying to hide behind 1st Amendment free speech rights is laughable, especially if you know anything about the shady tactics the bureau has engaged in over the years, particularly to quash leftwing dissenters. Rest in Power Fred Hampton.
Resist Groupthink: Think Critically and Ask Questions
To ask these questions from the Left one must resist groupthink. If Malcolm Nance was honest in his NPR interview (and I have no reason to think otherwise), are we to believe that the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and other intel agencies were unconcerned with a planned demonstration in DC the day the Electoral College vote was to be certified? Did any intel agencies brief lawmakers? If not, why not? If they didn’t (and I would be very surprised if they didn’t), then they should be charged with dereliction of duty. If so, they should be suspended immediately and charged with aiding and abetting a riot. Tellingly, Chad Wolf, the acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, has resigned, though not because of the riot at the Capitol. Not officially, anyway.
These questions need to be asked if you think what transpired at the Capitol was a coup, an insurrection, or terrorism. I don’t think that’s the case, but if you do then you need to be consistent. Interest only in arresting and charging Trump’s followers or Trump and his high profile accomplices is partisan folly. Why shouldn’t we demand that intel and law enforcement answer for their incompetence? Give me one good reason. Give me two. Hell, give me three, four, or more. Come up with as many as you can and dismantle my argument. If not, join me in calling for all relevant law enforcement, intel, and government officials to be investigated and, if warranted, charged and tried for aiding and abetting a riot. Resist the urge to put all of this on Trump and his supporters. If they can be charged, so can other government officials.
It is long past time to avoid the pitfalls of groupthink and start asking critical questions. In my view, that’s what it means to be a responsible citizen. Doing so might prevent the United States from spiraling further into disarray.