For the Proud Boys, the hammer has fallen. Joe Biggs, a leader of the far-right male organization, received a 17-year sentence for his activities during the January 6 Capitol riot in 2021. Enrique Tarrio, the group's chairman, is still awaiting sentencing but was similarly convicted of sedition, conspiracy to obstruct the 2020 election's certification, and other serious crimes earlier this year.
While 17 years constitutes a lengthy prison sentence, it is considerably shorter than what the government requested: Prosecutors wanted 33 years for Biggs. That's in keeping with the government's view that Biggs committed an act of terrorism; the prosecution asked U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly to apply a terrorism enhancement to the sentence.
"Biggs committed a crime of terrorism on January 6, and the Court should not hesitate to impose a sentence that reflects the seriousness of the crime and its threat to our nation—as reflected in the Sentencing Guidelines," wrote the prosecutors in their sentencing recommendation document.
In court, prosecutors argued that Biggs' actions certainly constituted terrorism because, though January 6 did not involve widespread destruction—exploding buildings, massive casualties—its impact on the nation's collective scarring is like that of a terrorist attack, they said. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason McCullough argued that the psychological fallout from January 6 is "no different than the act of a spectacular bombing of a building."
The judge quibbled slightly with this argument—accusing prosecutors of "overstat[ing]" their case—but ultimately agreed in principle that "while blowing up a building in some city somewhere is a very bad act… the constitutional moment we were in that day is something that is so sensitive that it deserves a significant sentence."
This does not seem overly scientific. Prosecutors said Biggs committed an act of terrorism akin to blowing up a building and that he should get 33 years in prison. The judge said, Well that's sort of an exaggeration, so… how about half that many years?
Biggs and other January 6 participants undoubtedly committed crimes—vandalism, trespassing, and in some cases, violence against police officers. They should be held accountable for the mayhem that they caused. But prosecutors who implicitly accuse them of staging something along the lines of another 9/11 have gotten over their skis. Many Americans have deep embarrassment over the spectacle of January 6, and rightly so; they do not consider the riot to be anywhere near as serious as a blown-up building.
The government came down extra hard on Biggs because he is a leader of the Proud Boys, and also because he has military training; he should have known, prosecutors argued, that he was in a unique position to actually provoke violence and destruction as he led the crowd to the barricades and tore down parts of the fencing.
Again, he inarguably committed crimes and must face the consequences. But rounding up his actions to terrorism is frankly giving the Proud Boys' plans more credit than they deserve. Broken windows and defiled desks were never going to prevent Joe Biden from taking office. If there was a conspiracy to steal the election, it unfolded in the weeks leading up to January 6, as President Donald Trump and his acolytes allegedly attempted to interfere with electoral processes underway in the states.
What occurred on January 6 was a largely spontaneous burst of property destruction and limited violence that interrupted Congress' certification of the votes—a riot, not a planned insurrection. As Reason's Jacob Sullum wrote when Biggs and Tarrio were first convicted, the term insurrection "implies a level of planning and organization that does not fit the chaotic reality of what happened that day."
Seventeen years is an extremely long time in prison; only the worst of the worst, the most dangerous and irredeemable sort of people, deserve to languish for such a time. It does the country no good to pretend that what transpired on January 6 was a terrorist attack, highly and effectively organized by a paramilitary group, that came within striking distance of actually preventing the peaceful transfer of power.
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