The Impunity of White Terrorists

Vinay Lal

What transpired at the US Capitol on January 6, President-elect Joe Biden noted, amounted to “sedition”, an act not of “protest” but of “insurrection”.  He was joined in this characterization at that time by a few other Senators and since then many public commentators have endorsed this view.  Some are inclined to use somewhat softer language, deploring the shocking lawlessness and descent into anarchy.  Many other elected officials and public figures bemoan the desecration of the “temple of democracy” and still others wonder whether America can any longer boast of being “the shining city on the hill”.

Whatever the language used to characterize the spectacle to which the entire world was witness, everyone is wholly in agreement that what happened was “unprecedented”.  And, yet, we must probe just exactly in what respect the “breach” that took place was without precedent and in what respect it is, wholly contrary to the received view, par for the course—for domestic white terrorists.  That the US Capitol has not been breached since the War of 1812 is true, though it was far more than a breach two hundred years ago:  the nation’s capital, including the Capitol, was burned by the British army in 1814.  Chuck Schumer invoked another meaning of “unprecedented” in comparing the storming of the Capitol by Trump’s enraged supporters with the December 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese—something that would go down in history as a “day of infamy”. 

As days of “infamy” go, it is doubtful that the storming of the US Capitol is anywhere in that league.  To someone less enamored with the idea that America is “the most exceptional country in the world”, a tiresome refrain emanating from both sides of the aisle in the US Congress, or less persuaded by the notion that the US generally stands on the side of justice, the brazen attack on the US Capitol by a large mob comprised overwhelmingly of white men and not a few women—and we would need a separate reckoning of the white women who over the years have lined up behind Trump—furnishes a different perspective on the white supremacism that has been lodged in the heart of American democracy since the inception of the Republic.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, was as striking as the fact that, for at least two hours after the proceedings were halted and the first pictures of the rioters making their way into the US Capitol had been splashed on TV screens, the police were almost nowhere to be seen.

That there was a massive failure of law enforcement is not disputed.  Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that such a colossal breakdown of policing took place under the watch of a President who, in response to the Black Lives Matter protests, projected himself as a Commander-in-Chief who would brook no disrespect for the law, or that Republicans have always cast themselves as firmly on the side of “law and order”.  By far the only germane consideration is whether the breach took place, as is now being claimed, because the Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police were unprepared for such an assault, or whether because white domestic terrorists are fully cognizant of the fact that they can break the law, in any manner of their choosing, with utter impunity. This, and this alone, is why the more the more ironic reading that I am otherwise tempted to engage in is something that I would seek to resist—namely, the fact that rioters were able to break into the Capitol is, in its curious way, a testament to the comparative proximity of the people to their elected representatives.

A Pro-Trump supporter poses with the statue of President Gerald R. Ford, remembered more than anything else for pardoning Richard Nixon. Source: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

One policeman was among the five who are dead in consequences of the fracas.  Though many Senators and Congressmen applauded the heroic efforts of the Capitol Police in keeping them safe from the mob, what the world saw was something altogether different.  The ease with which the rioters were permitted into the premises of the Capitol, going past several layers of security and breaking their way into the sanctum sanctorum of democracy, would set the pace for what followed over the next several hours.  Many of the rioters walked through the Rotunda as though they were visitors, gazing at the framed pictures of the Founding Fathers and snapping pictures.  Some took selfies with policemen.  Others were politely shown the way to the restroom.  We have to suppose that the seditionist who is shown in what will surely be one of the more iconic pictures of this little “insurrection” with his heavily booted foot on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk “broke in” to her office rather than being escorted by a compliant policeman.

The scene inside Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office on January 6. Source: Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

It took hours for the police to clear the premises. By the early evening, no more than a handful of the vandals and rioters had even been arrested.  The few dozen arrests that had been made by late nightfall were largely of those charged with violating the curfew set at 6 PM in Washington. I would not be the first person to observe that had the mob responsible for vandalizing the building, trespassing on federal government property, and possibly endangering the lives of elected officials been comprised largely of Black people, the outcome would doubtless have been radically different. The full force of the law would have been brought down upon the rioters—no “protestors” here—with unflinching brutality. There would have been hundreds of arrests; quite likely, some would have been shot dead, reportedly for “resisting arrest”.  The President himself would have called for shooting down the “dogs”.

White domestic terrorists have long been the principal “national security” threat in the US as the FBI has itself admitted on some occasions.  Yet what the assault on the US Capitol unimpeachably establishes is not merely that the threat has not been taken seriously but rather that domestic terrorists, overwhelmingly white, have been coddled not just during the course of the Trump Presidency, or even over the course of the last few decades, but since the founding of the Republic and the long leash that was given to slaveholders and other exponents of white supremacy.  The terrorists who broke into the US Capitol yesterday acted with brazen nonchalance and utter impunity, fully aware that they were being aided and incited by the sitting President of the United States.  He in turn has been abetted in his designs by scores of lawmakers and thousands more public figures of prominence, and they in turn have instigated millions more to take to the streets and airwaves and claim once again supreme ownership of the country. If the American people did not recognize it before, they should now awaken to the fact they alone are responsible for having installed and kept in the White House a man who finds his soulmates among domestic terrorists.  Just how Trump himself should be designated should require no guesswork.

This is a slightly revised version of the piece first published under the same title at abplive.in on 9 January 2021, here. Hindi version published as यूएस कैपिटल का हमला, श्वेत आतंकवादियों के प्रभाव में अमेरिका

20 thoughts on “The Impunity of White Terrorists

  1. You mention that the two options as to how the breach was able to take place was because of either the police’s lack of preparation or because of the entitlement and privilege the white domestic terrorists know they can use to their advantage for their evil intentions. These options I do agree to be true, but I would also add that that according to the Associated Press, the National Guard and the FBI warned the Capitol Police of what was possible of occurring that day, but the Capital Police denied any help with the excuse of not wanting to react the same way as they had this past summer with BLM. What is shown with this information from that day, which is similar to the point you were making, is the stark difference in how police anticipate a whole group of people to act, based on the color of their skin. It was not that the Capitol Police were unprepared, it was that they chose to be unprepared because the police system was founded on the idea of protecting white people from colored people and keeping them oppressed in the process. Yet how many times does our country have to suffer until the people at the top realize the country needs protecting from white domestic terrorists?

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    • If I had to restate what I had argued in a few words, the attack on the US Capitol was a “permissive” action–in other words, it was
      allowed to happen. This also means that there were people in the US administration, and in the armed forces, that were complicit with this
      assault on democracy in the US. We have learnt more since the time that I wrote the piece in the days after the assault, but the fundamental picture remains the same.

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  2. Hello, professor. Indeed, white terrorists have created a serious menace to the world. At the same time, white supremacists are becoming one of the biggest threats in the world. The extreme behavior of white supremacists is to provoke hatred between religions and conflicts between races. The shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, has once again sparked criticism of “white supremacy”. In recent years, the white supremacists were like eating the “poison pill of violence” and constantly creating terrorist incidents. While the trend of “white supremacy” is growing, some politicians in western countries say lightly that “white nationalists are just a small group”. That is absolutely false. Simultaneously, more and more people are worried that “white supremacy” is going to the extreme. So, it is important to take some measures to solve this problem rather than the impunity of white terrorists. On the other hand, the momentum of white supremacy is on the rise. One of the specific manifestations is that the current policies of many western countries are exclusive, such as anti-immigration and anti-refugee. From these phenomena, some western countries’ policies inadvertently stimulate the ultra-Right trend of thought and ultra-Right activities, which will lead to more violent actions.

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  3. There are great points stated here especially with the contrast shown in the reaction with how a certain portion of the population was treated in response to their peaceful assembly compared to the insurrection at the Capitol which visibly defiled offices and threatened the lives of legislators. The BLM protests in the summer were predominately orchestrated by black activists who sought peaceful demonstrations that raised awareness of the injustice shown, yet they were labeled as a domestic terrorist group that sought to destroy and desecrate America. However, the insurrection that took place at the Capitol which resulted in the deaths of five law enforcement officers by a majority of white rioters were downplayed. This demonstrates to me the lack of accountability white Americans face especially from those who represent them not taking it upon themselves to hold them to the same scrutiny the BLM protest had been accused of.

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  4. When I saw to topic at first, the BLM movement had flashed in my mind. As President Joe Biden said “”amounted to “sedition”, an act not of “protest” but of “insurrection”.” Of course the black people’s life is life, but at this movement had use wrong way to protest. In other way, the officer had used the wrong also. If the officer’s inner has not racism and fairness it won’t be like now. In recent years, those kind of case is countless. There is post mentioned “furnishes a different perspective on the white supremacism that has been lodged in the heart of American democracy since the inception of the Republic. ” and a lots of white people crime or vandalism under white suprematism, and those people have had a serious impact on the world.

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  5. The stark contrast between the anarchic insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6 and the Black Lives Matter Protest undermines the ideals and foundation that America was built on. The BLM protest was a peaceful movement that raised awareness for the injustice against black people. Also, advocated for the individuals wrongfully killed due to racial profiling. However, the invasion of the US Capitol by the white supremacists was an act of domestic terrorism that tainted and destroyed the US’ laws and symbol of democracy, putting the lives of US officials/politicians, officers, and civilians. The BLM Movement was responded to by police barricades, heavy security, and aggressive actions; while, the riot at the Capitol was responded to by light security with officers showing the rioters “the way to the restroom.” This is condemning and disrespectful, exemplifying how America is not a perfect democracy where all people are equal. Moreover, agreeing with other comments and the article, the insurrection on January 6 demonstrates how some people believe that they are above or immune to the law.

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  6. Hello Professor Lal! What I find to be the most interesting phenomenon among white supremacists and Trump supporters is that they continue to believe that ANTIFA was responsible for the attack on the capital and they continue to believe the fantasy that Trump supporters were fighting for justice. What was seen in Trump’s final year was his ability to radicalize his base with speed and severity. He was able to make his supporters believe anything he said and his supporters blindly followed him like when he called the election a fraud. However, this radicalization was easy to achieve because the thoughts of white supremacy have always been a part of American society and this nation has prospered because it was able to exploit its poor black population. Therefore, Trump’s ideas are not new to American society and when he called on his supporters to attack the capital, it was able to show how racism and nationalism are only growing in this nation.

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  7. The double standard that these white terrorists hold about rebellion is clearly evident just by looking at their own statements. They condemn BLM, Antifa, and other groups for protesting/rioting, whether violently or not. They claim that these people should simply sit at home and allow the police and the system to fix their ‘nonexistent’ problems. At the same time, they storm the Capitol at Trump’s behest and claim the system is broken and corrupt and violently installing Trump as president would solve it. These ridiculous claims are representative of the current state of American society, where these people can actively do what they claim to preach against and get away with it. The Trump administration did not stop them either, effectively enabling and sometimes even sublty promoting such action.

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  8. Professor,

    Thank you for putting out raw information about this. I do agree that a lot of the media has been cautiously talking about this incident describing it as “unprecedented,” and other nonsense. I believe this was planned obviously by White terrorists outside the white house, as well as inside employees. There is a video of a police officer on the media literally ignoring the supremacists coming in… The actions speak for themselves.

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  9. Unfortunately, this action, if I may call it action, was expected to happen. As the time was running and the kind of bitter politics of the Trump Administration was coming to its end, something like the attack on Capitol was likely to happen. I must agree, however, that law enforcement, in this case, was pretty unprepared. Among other things, such as the pandemic or our declining economy, people were driven by something or someone which I can not describe, but I can announce that this was a historical moment and a moment that no American, especially the attackers, should think to repeat.

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  10. The insurrection that occurred in January was sadly one that was allowed to happen. The Capitol police chose to not be prepared nor to react the way they did when the BLM protests occurred. It is unfathomable that they would allow people to cause destruction in a place that many consider to be the beacon of Democracy. They allowed white terrorists to behave in a way that would have immediately led to force had it been any other group of people. Nothing justifies their lack of action.

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  11. Not only was the Capital breach obviously enabled by White supremacy, but this disgusting act of terrorism highlights racism within the Republican Party. Peaceful (and very necessary) Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland were met with the fully-armed National Guard; Trump condemned protestors who looted or broke buildings, calling them derogatory names on public television. In fact, Trump had a stronger response to the protests themselves rather than the numerous police killings of innocent Black citizens. All of these facts are so clearly unacceptable yet widely accepted. Trump’s presidency exposed the worst of America: he brought out the ubiquitous racism that the U.S. attempted to conceal. I wholeheartedly agree that had Black citizens attempted to storm the Capital, they would have been shot and the National Guard would have been mobilized without a second thought — resulting in a massacre. And yet, many continue refusing to name the storming of our nation’s Capital as an act of terrorism simply because the aggressors were White. Angry White Republicans assume the ability to commit heinous acts with impunity because they feel entitled due to America’s racist past and former president. Many blame Trump for these troubled four years, and he played a major role, but Trump certainly did not create the problem. As necessary progressive reforms have helped even the playing field, although we still have a long way to go, conservative White individuals in positions of power and wealth — due to a privileged past — grow angrier in their attempt to cling to their privilege. I genuinely cannot express my anger at the picture of the man putting his feet on the desk of Nancy Pelosi: an educated woman who worked to obtain an esteemed political position demeaned by a backwards terrorist. I am disheartened and furious at the lack of punishment for this event. Even worse was the Republican party’s response to politicians like Liz Cheney who spoke out against the riot and lost her position. The party’s commitment to power over morals and even the constitution displays blatantly racist and corrupt ideals that continue to enable and promote white supremacy.

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  12. Professor,
    When I first heard of the act of sedition at the Capital, I was disgusted but as you said not shocked. I believe throughout his years as President, Donald Trump was able to form support from very radical people within the United States. The President’s actions, words, and tone allowed these individuals to feel empowered. I believe this attack on the Capital felt justified to them as they believed in their delusion that their country had been “taken” away from them. While I was not necessarily surprised by the actions, I am drawn to the hypocrisy that had taken place. Throughout the protests across America, responding to George Floyd and the many other racially driven injustices in America, Donald Trump and his followers deemed these violent riots. However, Trump was quick to incite this violent act on the Capital. I believe he then tried to deny these claims once the consequences came his way, but it was clear he indeed promoted his followers to commit this act.

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  13. Professor,

    A comment above mine mentioned the phenomenon of right-wingers refusing to even accept responsibility for the events that unfolded in January at the Capitol. Instead, they assign blame to ANTIFA (which, I have to add, is much, much more of an ideology than it is an actual, concrete organized group), stating that ‘those’ people seized the opportunity of a protest in order to make Trump supporters look bad. Obviously, there is no evidence supporting this idea. However, I think this viewpoint is especially interesting because of the parallels that can be seen with the Reichstag Fire in 1933, which gave Hitler an excuse to truly seize control of Germany. Since the Reichstag was such a significant symbol (as is the Capitol), the burning of it caused outrage. Hitler used this to his advantage and said that the arsonist, Marinus van der Lubbe, was acting on behalf of the Communists. Years later, it is generally accepted that van der Lubbe acted alone and was not a part of any Communist plot. The parallel is striking: using the defacement of a national symbol as a way to place blame on the left wing. I was surprised to see that this comparison was not made as widely as I would have thought.

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    • Hello Edna,
      You have made an astute comment. However, the Reichstag analogy is obvious to many who are aware of the history of the rise of Hitler, and it has been mentioned by some — though not in articles published in mainstream newspapers such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, etc. I similarly agree with your observation that ANTIFA is far from being some organized group or movement; whether there is even any such thing as ANTIFA is itself questionable, in that there is barely any left in America. The Communist Party of the US has but 2,000 or so members and there is little of what would be called the organized left in this country. Your points are well-taken.

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  14. Hello Professor, I think that many of the points you make in this post are quite intriguing, particularly where you point out how things would’ve most likely gone quite differently if the protest was related to black lives matter and lead by people of color rather than white Trump supporters. When this whole insurrection and storming of the capitol occurred, that was also one of my first thoughts as well. Another thought I had was how would other countries react if a large group of civilians attempted to storm their capital. For example, I felt like a country such as China would never allow this type of behavior, essentially resulting in a military massacre similar to that of protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989. I also think that this type of behavior being promoted and allowed by our President makes our country look like a bigger joke than it has for the past 4 years under President Trump. It’s extremely ironic how Trump supporters, people who claim to be extremely patriotic and nationalist could look at this type of behavior and support it. It makes a mockery out of the rich history of the United States that these same type of characters would support. Then again, I don’t particularly expect much out of the same people who thought storming our nation’s federal capital was a good idea and would lead to any change whatsoever.

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  15. I think the largest disappointment of the attack on the capitol is how easy these white terrorize have been forgiven with very little repercussions. If the attack had been orchestrated by any other racial group or organization the amount of social discrimination that would rise from it would be unimaginable. We can not deny that the actions of radical groups such as Isis have led to a negative preselects effect on all muslims. Why is it that the white radicals of America have been let off so easily. We can not excuse their as anything less than a terrorist attack on the capitol building of our country. The actions of that day should fall in infamy as the day the white radicals attack the nature of democracy and freedom in the US.

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  16. Hello Professor,
    I found that this article and the arguments made were quite truthful, which is such a scary thought to me and I’m sure countless others. When you mention the soft tone that most senators, governors, and other people in power had towards the group, it just leads me to wonder what the outrage would be if the roles were reversed. If right-wingers saw what they believed was a prominent left-wing group, such as “Antifa”, which comments above discuss and agree isn’t a concrete and unified group but more of an ideology, the verbiage, and language used would no doubt be much rougher and the mass populace would be quicker to condemn and attack the masses. Just imagine for a second, if it was a crowd of mostly black men, with few black women mounting an insurrection at the capital rather than as you mentioned, mostly white men, with a few white women. I honestly believe they wouldn’t have even made it inside. It’s frustrating to me how, as you mentioned, white nationalism and terrorism have been taken so lightly for so long. People are still quick to defend them and are also quick to condemn any protest that fights for something they don’t find interesting or don’t believe benefits them.

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  17. The United States moved on too fast. There are no longer enough consequences, enough drama, enough eyes watching and shaming things like this. I think we’ve grown so desensitized to it all. It looked like kids walking into a candy store. There’s a tik tok joke going around and it’s basically just the words “bullying works” and I definitely do not mean to minimize what occurred by reducing it to a joke, but I think that should apply here. I feel like I would get in more trouble for walking into the wrong class during their final test and letting out a scream. You’re completely correct that this was domestic terrorism. White supremacists hardly ever pay a consequence for their action while everyone else walks around paying their price. It’s also incredibly embarrassing to imagine what this must look like on the world stage.. America probably looks like a hot mess. I’m curious if white supremacy is this rampant of an issue anywhere else. Pretty sure the reason why it’s grown so much here is just because of the lack of accountability due to race. I’m afraid to imagine where our country would be if Trump had gotten elected again so at least there’s that.

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  18. There is definitely an element of white privilege in this debacle but I don’t think we can point towards racism for law enforcement’s response. I think you’ve rightly stated that if it were black people, the action against them would have been swift and fierce. So the question remains, why is it so? Why didn’t law enforcement take more drastic action against the rioters and vandals? Now, I don’t want to say that law enforcement is racist because it can’t be that simple. I want to believe that there was real reason for why law enforcement stood down and didn’t take quick action because they would have been completely justified to do so- no soul in America could have argued otherwise because attacking the capitol is equivalent to attacking democracy itself, a value that is commonly shared amongst all Americans. Logic tells me that they were either instructed in their dealing with the ‘terrorists’ or obstacles were created to prevent law enforcement from doing its job. Whatever the case, there is definitely an element of high-level manipulation. If the US government wanted to stop the terrorists, it definitely could have.

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