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 on 9 January 2021, here. Hindi version published as यूएस कैपिटल का हमला, श्वेत आतंकवादियों के प्रभाव में अमेरिका

[Vinay Lal is Professor of History and Asian American Studies at UCLA. He writes widely on the history and culture of colonial and modern India, popular and public culture in India, historiography, the politics of world history, the Indian diaspora, global politics, contemporary American politics, the life and thought of Mohandas Gandhi, Hinduism, and the politics of knowledge systems.]


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Jan 13, 2021


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