Two and a half weeks ago, the nation watched as an armed mob, incited by the then-sitting United States President Donald Trump, breached the Capitol building with the intent of occupation. As I observe Westmont’s processing of this event, I notice an overarching tone of surprise. We ask ourselves, “How could this happen?” We gasp that “we never saw it coming.”
Frankly, I’m surprised at the surprise. Nothing about the siege of the Capitol was surprising; it’s the natural escalation of the violent protests that have been increasing since at least 2016. One memorable example includes the protests of Trump’s election, which, in Portland, led to “significant property damage and disruption,” and included the lobbing of burning objects at the police. Or we can look to the summer of 2020, when many Black Lives Matter protests-turned-riots led to the deaths of 19 people in 14 days and property damage and violence exceeding the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
In fact, the siege on the Capitol mirrors an event in 2018, when Senator Elizabeth Warren incited 302 people protesting the potential election of Brett Kavanaugh to occupy the Hart Senate Office Building. The moment is further commemorated by this tweet from the Women’s March movement, proclaiming, “We were planning to shut down the Capitol Building but the authorities were so scared of the #WomensWave that they shut it down for us.” Though the protest was peaceful, it easily could have served as a blueprint for the siege on Jan. 6.
The evidence shows that the violence and escalation extends far beyond party lines or radical groups. In fact, the real problem we face is the increasing willingness of regular people to condone and participate in political violence. This conclusion is supported by the research of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study that discovered in 2020, there was an increase in the number of Americans who would condone violence if their party lost the election. Additionally, the study found that violent events tend to increase public approval of political violence. This tendency can create a spiral effect, in which violence begets violence in an increasingly escalatory pattern.
In recognition that some may disagree with this argument, I hope to address the prominent objections here. Some might suggest that recognizing a bigger trend should not stop us from holding the appropriate parties responsible. I agree that those who commit violent crimes in the name of politics should be condemned and prosecuted. However, I would caution against using partisan rhetoric to abstractly condemn a particular party. In any large organization, it can be difficult to distinguish the peaceful protestors from the violent ones. We saw this difficulty with the Black Lives Matter protests this summer. To condemn an entire group of people for the actions of a few only increases party division and the likelihood of more violence.
Others may suggest that the violence witnessed in the past four years occurred only because Donald Trump was in office. I would argue that, while he very well may be a factor, the political protests spanned a range of issues, and not all of them had to do with him. Additionally, the current protests in Portland after President Biden’s election suggest an underlying cause for political violence independent of Trump. Regardless of his level of effect on political violence, I would argue that the level of incitement should not inherently justify violence. I will expand on this further in my next point.
Still others might hold that some causes are morally correct enough to warrant violence in their defense. Without getting too philosophical, I would point out two things. One, this is a “the ends justify the means” argument, wherein achieving a moral end justifies acting immorally to get there. This mindset is demonstrably dangerous, and can lead to heinous acts committed in the name of moral good. Therefore, it should not be used to justify political violence. Two, I would urge caution in using morality to authorize the immoral treatment of others. Bad things tend to happen when people believe they are absolutely morally superior to everyone else. They then justify that violence can, and should, be committed against anyone with opposing views. Our world is significantly more nuanced than this, and reducing people to less-than-human because some believe them immoral only exacerbates the problem.
Having established that the problem facing America in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol siege is a trend of escalating partisan violence, there remain a few key solutions. First, a dramatic reduction of incendiary rhetoric is necessary for all, especially on social media. I said it in the last paragraph and I will say it again here: posting spiteful, sarcastic attacks online, even if you think they are against bad people, does not solve the problem. I would challenge Westmont students, especially those involved in politics, to consider either taking a break from social media or dramatically reducing their partisan rhetoric for one week to practice breaking this habit. Secondly, I would argue that Westmont students and concerned citizens seeking administrative change should expand their proverbial tool-belts. Protestation is a very powerful tool, but it is only one of many! Sometimes, you need to work within a broken system to change it. Consider attending your local city-council meetings, setting up letter-writing campaigns, and inundating various senators with well-written emails as a place to start. By immediately deescalating the rhetoric and beginning to utilize other tools of petition and dissent, along with peaceful protest, we may be able to pull ourselves out of the spiral of violence that has caused so much pain.