For decades, the US public and the politicians have been conditioned to see more government repression as the solution to just about any ill that strikes the country, especially political violence. So it’s not a shock that in the wake of last week’s Trump-instigated Capitol riot, different sides of the political establishment have agreed that what needs to be done now is to pass a domestic terrorism law, giving law enforcement even more powers and resources.
On a purely policy level, this makes no sense. For one, the Capitol police force that failed to prepare for last week’s protest and subsequent storming of Congress are already well-funded and were repeatedly warned that some participants were planning violence, failing to either act on those alarms or to prepare as they would for any other protest at the Capitol. Secondly, given that police officers were among those who rioted, the backing the incident received from various police officials around the country, and suspicions that some Capitol police may even have been complicit in what happened, handing them more power and a mandate to go after people they deem terrorists is a little like handing the water hose to a suspected arsonist.
Then there’s the matter of civil liberties. Besides its legitimate law enforcement work, the FBI, for one, also has a long, long history of using its resources to go after (mostly left-wing) political dissidents, right up until the present day, when it has targeted what it calls “black identity extremists,” aka activists protesting police brutality. Meanwhile, we’re barely out of a year where we watched police and members of federal law enforcement around the country crack down on mostly peaceful protesters with extraordinary barbarity.
Luckily, there are proactive, constructive measures that can be taken by those in power to prevent something like last week from happening again. Here is a by no means exhaustive list of some of them.
1. A 9/11 Commission-Style Inquiry Into Last Week’s Security Failures
I can’t believe I’m writing this, but former New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton is right: there should be a broad-ranging, independent inquiry in the style of the 9/11 Commission to investigate and determine what went wrong with security last week, and whether there was an organized plot involving people inside the government, as some suspect.
Why were the Capitol police so woefully unprepared for something they were copiously warned about? Why did the Pentagon delay approval for a National Guard deployment, as Maryland governor Larry Hogan and the former Capitol Police chief have both charged? Were members of the Capitol Police complicit in the events, and if so, to what extent? Were there lawmakers themselves who were involved in any plot? So far, we have only either accusations or excuses, with no way to sort between them.
Such an inquiry could help clear up other questions. Questions like, why had the panic buttons in Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s office been ripped out prior to the incident? Did lawmakers really give “reconnaissance” tours to groups in advance of the protest, as Rep. Mikie Sherrill has alleged? Is there a possible link between the tour groups — banned since March due to the pandemic and in this case reported to security because of their unusual nature — and the more seemingly organized participants in last week’s events, as thirty House Democrats are alleging? We need to know if these are just coincidences, or something truly more sinister.
Lawmakers have already launched or called for several inquiries that touch on some individual parts of these questions, but given the scope and suspicions involved, it makes more sense to centralize them under one, much broader investigation. Some of those inquiries are also flawed. Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s (D-IL) call for an investigation into the armed forces, for instance, requires the Capitol Police to do the investigating, a potential conflict of interest given they themselves are the subject of suspicions. Finally, whatever the information gathered — interviews and other evidence, whether damning or exonerating — should be made public and laid out in full, so the public can judge the evidence for themselves.
2. Investigate Law Enforcement Around the Country
There is already more than enough reason to launch a broad investigation into police around the United States. Besides the routine abuse and misconduct endemic to local law enforcement in seemingly every part of the country, we know that: the FBI has for years been looking into white supremacist infiltration of police; that a sizable number of law enforcement officers privately hold a wide variety of far-right, authoritarian, and conspiratorial views, including belief in the QAnon conspiracy; that they have routinely collaborated with far-right protesters and activists; and that a number of those in leadership positions supported last week’s riot.
Add to that the outrageous way police conducted themselves through much last year — wanton attacks on unarmed, peaceful protesters, journalists, and bystanders; the kidnapping of civilians off the street; the use of vehicles to ram demonstrators; the closing of ranks around abusive individual officers, even what was for all intents and purposes a state assassination — and it’s been clear for a while there’s a profound sickness in American policing that needs to be expunged. That fact that police were involved in last week’s antidemocratic riot only makes this more urgent.
Jamaal Bowman’s COUP Act is a good start, investigating the Capitol Police and their failure last week, and probing any possible ties to white supremacist groups. But it needs to go further. Complicity in what happened last week, not to mention abuse and far-right sympathies, goes well beyond the Capitol Police, and such a probe should look at not just white supremacy, but the entire spectrum of extremist right-wing belief. And while some local entities are doing their own probes, the police should not be investigating themselves — in fact, this kind of probe could be rolled into the wider 9/11-style inquiry.
3. Take on the Power of the Right-Wing Media Ecosystem
While social media has of course played a role in the increasingly unhinged discourse of the Trump era, political chatter has focused on it far too much. What has been more influential is the broader right-wing media ecosystem on, particularly, radio and television, which together remain the chief sources of political news for the majority of the US public.
As has been the case for two decades, the chief drivers of misinformation around last year’s election result — along with a host of other deadly Trump-driven nonsense — have been cable news outlets like Fox, One America News Network, and Newsmax TV, their claims repeated on the longtime conservative bastion of talk radio, and on local television stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, the pro-Trump media conglomerate that has been gobbling up stations around the country at an alarming rate.
The fixation on purging and censoring social media has diverted talk away from sensible, non-censorious policies for curbing the power of right-wing media, ideas that were once stock-in-trade for anyone left of center. Those once included undoing the spate of deregulation that has led to the concentration of corporate media ownership, the spread of conflicts of interest within it, and a loss of diversity in programming, and taking anti-monopoly action to break up media conglomerates. They also included reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, which once mandated that broadcasters cover issues important to the public, and that they air opposing positions on them. The doctrine’s repeal in 1987 is widely pointed to as a leading cause behind the explosion of right-wing talk radio.
While these measures wouldn’t necessarily impact cable news outlets like Fox, others would. Those might include limiting (or at least threatening to) commercials on news programs as the FCC already does for kids’ shows, ensuring worker representation on corporate media boards, and creating a public oversight board for all corporate news that adjudicates complaints and issues public reports and rulings about coverage. Haul the owners of corporate media outlets before Congress and publicly dress them down for their roles in fomenting electoral misinformation, as was done with tech companies, an action that, for better or worse, succeeded in making them carry out reforms voluntarily. Start talking about the possibility of putting cable television under public ownership so it can be regulated like other broadcasters, the threat of which could similarly nudge corporate media in the right direction.
These are just some ways to prevent the continued spread of misinformation through the airways without taking the kind of censorious approach being widely bandied about when it comes to social media. And best of all, it would limit the power of all corporate media in the process.
4. Clamp Down on the US System of Legalized Bribery
As David Sirota has correctly pointed out, Trump, his GOP allies who backed his misinformation campaign and goaded his supporters to come to the Capitol, and the various organizations that helped put together last week’s event are all funded by piles and piles of corporate and mega-donor cash. Rather than clamping down on speech and the right to protest, the riot should add more urgency than ever to the long-standing call to put up sharp limits on political spending, which has allowed a minoritarian, antidemocratic movement to wield disproportionate influence on US politics.
If Democrats and their backers are serious that last week’s riot was an act of terrorism — something unambiguously true about those who laid pipe bombs and were potentially plotting to take hostages or worse — then surely they should treat the United States’ corrupt system of political financing as a national security issue. To this day, the only person ever convicted in a terrorism case as a result of the NSA’s post–September 11 mass collection of phone metadata was a man who sent $8,500 to the Somalian group al-Shabaab. And yet sums many magnitudes higher than this should be allowed to slosh around Trump and his allies?
There are, of course, political and institutional roadblocks that could stand in the way of this. One alternative would be to sharply raise taxes on the rich and corporations, and put in place a wealth tax, measures that would at least limit the amount these entities could donate to Trumpist politicians and movements. This could also have the effect of limiting the money flowing to organizations advancing far-right ideas, which tend to be funded by wealthy patrons.
True, Joe Biden has either ruled such measures out or proposed unambitious versions of them. But that was before what he called an “unprecedented assault” on US democracy took place and upended everything. And as before, there’s a bonus: not only would this be a concrete and effective step to prevent something like last week from happening again, it would help move the United States away from a system of oligarchy and closer to one of a true democracy.
A Plan for Inaction
Of course, little, if any, of this will actually happen. And it’s easy to see why. To properly respond to last week’s events would require antagonizing a host of institutions the Democratic Party is either in bed with or has no appetite to take on: the police and the military; the corporate press that serves as the party’s media arm; the moneyed elite they rely on to win elections and enrich themselves when they leave politics.
So they will do what they always do: try their hardest to work with Republicans to pass a law just months ago people were warning would be dangerous and that will let them control the next wave of unrest their chronic inaction produces, whether it comes from climate change campaigners, the jobless and destitute, or more anti–police brutality protests. Just don’t let anyone tell you there was nothing else they could’ve done.