After the deadly violence at the U.S. Capitol last week, terms like protest, riot and sedition are being used to describe what occurred. Make no mistake, it was a terrorist attack.
An American mob constructed a gallows outside the Capitol, carried a Confederate flag through the sacred halls of democracy and placed improvised explosive devices at the headquarters of the Republican and Democratic national committees. Inside the Capitol, windows were smashed and offices ransacked. One attacker brought 11 Molotov cocktails and an assault rifle, another stalked the Senate floor with a fistful of flex-cuffs. Ultimately, a police officer was killed and dozens of other officers were hurt.
The hundreds of Trump supporters who stormed into the Capitol were a fraction of the thousands who had marched there after the president exhorted them to do so. But their actions, and the presence of white supremacists and anti-government extremists scattered among those who remained outside, made manifest the documented and dangerous threat these domestic extremists have posed for decades. The discussions they are having online suggest this attack was intended to be “independence day” and the beginning of a second civil war.
Biden inaugural is not the finish line
While images of the U.S. Capitol being overrun are terrifying, we should not be too surprised. Extremist groups have been discussing and planning audacious attacks for some time. Most recently, in October, the FBI stopped a plot by white supremacist and anti-government extremists to kidnap the Michigan and Virginia governors.
These and other wicked ideas are increasingly pervasive in online forums. Extremists participating in these virtual communities are gleeful over the Capitol attack and are using it to recruit members in advance of violence on Inauguration Day.
As a country, however, we should not see the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden as a finish line, after which the extremist threat might seem to stand down. There is no finish line in homeland security. Even when every person who participated in the Washington, D.C., attack is identified, arrested, charged and convicted in accordance with the exiting president’s own executive order, extremists will remain.
While the U.S. Capitol was invaded, ominous protests in state capitals revealed the scope of this extremism. In Salt Lake City, 400 people converged on the Utah Capitol and a photojournalist was attacked. In Georgia, about 100 people, some of them armed, prompted the secretary of state and his staff to evacuate. In St. Paul, 500 people descended on the Minnesota Capitol, where a protester characterized the day as 1776 — the start of the American Revolution.
Protests in other states were largely peaceful, and it would be incorrect to presume every person who participated was an extremist. Therein is our national challenge. How can we distinguish between those expressing a constitutionally protected political opinion, those who might be susceptible to violent extremist action, and those who are already planning for their next attack?
There are necessary policy and legal discussions to identify and address the scale of white supremacy and anti-government extremism in the United States. Security will come not just through mitigating the threat but also diminishing it.
Public trials for the Capitol attackers
Radicalization to violence does not occur overnight, and likewise coaxing someone back from extremism is not a simple endeavor. Nor is it always successful. Judging by the clothing patches donned on Jan. 6, the flags they waved, the coded hand signals they flashed to one another and, for some, their known affiliation with hate groups, the Capitol attack included people adhering to multiple violent ideologies. It is reminiscent of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was perplexing in part because right-wing extremist groups typically do not collaborate in that way.
As a nation, we need a nuanced strategy for addressing each violent ideology, hybrid derivative and group. Part of that effort will be shoring up trust in information sources, public leaders and our very democracy. People need to understand where opinion ends and extremist ideology begins, and right now that is a nebulous line for too many. Some American leaders have progressively dumbed down a significant portion of the American public, mixing news spin with half-truths and half-baked conspiracies. When people have no interest in education, “real” news, conducting research and inviting discussions with people of opposing views, they become the sheep for the violent shepherds’ extremism.
Trump mob attack on the Capitol: 10 urgent security questions that need answers
We also need to make an example of those who attacked the U.S. Capitol. They must receive the full measure of justice to show that violent action will always fall in the face of law and order. Those who stormed the Capitol by force in a bid to prevent or delay the business of the United States government, in this case affirming Biden's election win, should bear the full weight of prosecution for seditious conspiracy. Their trials should be public, demonstrating the enduring strength of democracy and our legal system.
Throughout U.S. history, there are only a handful of dates that live in infamy, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt said of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Jan. 6, 2021, is now one of them. But it is also a day that showed a violent mob, adaptive adversaries and a disgraceful, appalling president cannot bring down our democratic system.
Erroll G. Southers is a former FBI special agent, Professor of the Practice in National & Homeland Security at the University of Southern California, director of the USC Safe Communities Institute, director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @esouthersHVE
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Capitol riot made real the far-right terrorism threat Trump has fueled