Capitol crisis calls for a pastor-in-chief

Author: Mahan Mirza, Ansari Institute Executive Director

In this photo, US President Theodore Roosevelt is seen delivering an impassioned speech.

The January 6 insurrection at the Capitol in Washington, DC, is just the beginning. It came as advertised; it was televised; and the perpetrators are promising more to come. We are now transitioning to an administration the rioters have been programmed to view as illegitimate. Combining their sense of disenfranchisement with deep feelings of being disrespected for generations, the rioters place us in danger of seeing the insurrection transformed into an all-out insurgency.

The seeds of chaos—sowed by the bizarre tandem of Trump and Twitter—came to tragic fruition on January 6. Mob psychology tells us that chaotic situations can result in “a process of deindividuation” that “makes participants in crowds less rational.” Emergent norm theory explains that crowd dynamics can shift rapidly as the situation changes. Ordinary people end up performing extraordinary deeds that they would never have imagined or planned in advance. What we witnessed at the Capitol was a very human phenomenon. These “explanations” do not exonerate the guilty, but they help us empathize with the multitudes who got caught in the fray.

I do not believe that everyone came to destroy or desecrate. In their minds they were there to right a perceived wrong.

When I think of what happened at the Capitol, I don’t have flashbacks to 9/11. I think of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. That heinous terrorist act was perpetrated by a White supremacist who believed that the government was his enemy. He had the same underlying motives as the Capitol mob. Oklahoma City took us by surprise. But we saw the Capitol mob coming from a mile away. According to the proceedings of the 116th Congress dated March 27, 2019, “White supremacists and other far-right-wing extremists are the most significant domestic terrorism threat facing the United States.” While violent extremists led the charge on the Capitol, I do not believe that everyone came to destroy, terrorize, or desecrate. In their minds they were there to right a perceived wrong.

The penetration of the Capitol—the citadel of freedom—with relative ease hints that there was support for this on the inside. We need to be very concerned about where this might lead. In 2011, the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his own bodyguard, a zealot who felt Taseer had betrayed Islam for questioning Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. In 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi met a similar fate when her Sikh bodyguards gunned her down for the perceived desecration of their Golden Temple. And in 1981, President of Egypt Anwar Sadat was killed in a parade by his own soldiers in protest of his making peace with Israel.

The US military is known to be struggling with far-right extremism within its ranks. Can Biden or any other high-value targets guarantee that their security details are free of such radicalized elements? Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was a US Army veteran. The attack “reduced a third of the building to rubble,” incinerated dozens of cars, destroyed or damaged over 300 nearby structures, and killed 168 people, including nineteen children.

Everything has become politics

Rhetoric and radicalization are intimately connected. In 2019, a 21-year-old White man killed twenty-two shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Parroting Trump’s language, he was responding to a perceived “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” The previous year, Robert G. Bowers killed eleven worshippers and wounded six others in an attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The Nation’s headline read: “The Pittsburgh synagogue shooting is the inevitable result of Trump’s vile nationalism.” The New York Times was more cautious in its language, but pointed in the same direction: “If Mr. Trump did not originally inspire the gunman, he has brought into the mainstream polarizing ideas and people once consigned to the fringes of American society.”

This dynamic of radicalization from the fringes to the mainstream sounds familiar. In Pakistan, where I grew up, before the age of round-the-clock news and social media, clerics in some neighborhoods used loudspeakers to wage sectarian rhetorical wars. So long as their passions remained limited to the airways, they were merely the cause of public nuisance to innocent bystanders. But in times of heightened social and political tension, inflammatory words often led to physical violence.

Extremists often represent grievances that are shared by a majority of their nonviolent constituents.

In 2016, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman penned an insightful op-ed asking: “Are we all just Sunnis and Shiites now?” According to Friedman, “more and more of our politics resembles the core sectarian conflict in the Middle East between these two branches of Islam.” Four years later, in 2020, he reiterated his argument: “As in the Middle East, so increasingly in America: Everything is now politics—even the climate, even energy, even face masks in a pandemic.” In our sectarian wars, cable news, social media, and radio talk shows are our loudspeakers. The president speaks from a place of special privilege in this arena, not only in matters of governance, but also in the shaping of hearts. President Theodore Roosevelt recognized the pastoral power of his words when he reflected: “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”

Now that “domestic terror” is an acknowledged reality, we should learn from past mistakes in the war on terror. The single fatal mistake in response to terrorism is overreach, that is, adopting counterterrorism measures that play into the hands of the terrorists, exacerbating grievances and fanning the flames for renewed attacks. Extremists often represent grievances that are shared by a majority of their nonviolent constituents. Black-and-white condemnations of extremism, without acknowledging the legitimate grievances that underpin them, can make matters worse by distracting us from underlying causes.

Rhetoric pushed us over the brink, and rhetoric may help pull us back. But we will need more than talk. Lies and misinformation alone did not cause this mess. Years of myopic policies that created a firestorm of resentment among the working middle class did so. Right-wing grievances are ultimately rooted in the perceived loss of the American Dream and the loss of dignity. Trump and his lackeys succeeded in riding the tiger of resentment until it bit them badly on Jan 6. But the tiger is still out there.

President-elect Biden’s difficult task is to isolate extremists while ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the regular folks who have endured decades of decline in their communities.

Integral human development requires integral thinking—viewing a problem in its systemic totality. It takes into account historical and cultural contexts. It requires tackling the whole problem, addressing the needs of the whole person. It takes into account beliefs and feelings. As things stand, political power is slipping through the fingers of the White working class. Their leaders are banned from Twitter and Facebook. They are being spoken to, quite literally, as a “basket of deplorables.” As we speak, the extremists among them are mobilizing for further attacks.

President-elect Biden’s difficult task is to isolate extremists while “winning the hearts and minds” of the regular folks who have endured decades of decline in their communities. Many of these people have been led to blame immigrants and minorities for that decline, abetted by an elite class of liberal politicians and professionals. Christian nationalism becomes a way to preserve what is being lost or to even go back to what once was—make America great again. Scholar of religion Stephen Prothero narrates the arrow of American history in Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections). This time, liberals won the elections too. The battle for the soul of America rages on.

Violence must be confronted, but we cannot allow it to obscure its deeper causes. Some critics of Black Lives Matter use the violence that has accompanied protests on the streets to discredit the movement altogether. Similarly, Islamic terrorism has drawn attention away from legitimate criticisms of US foreign policy. There are two important lessons to learn from this dynamic. One, violent extremists harm their own cause. The Capitol riots succeeded in derailing the Trump train like nothing else. And two, we cannot let extremism prevent those with power and privilege from fulfilling their moral responsibility of addressing its root causes.

In the war on domestic terror, Biden’s inner voice of pastor-in-chief, the voice of radical reconciliation, must be audible.

The horrors of blurring the line between noncombatants and violent extremists are evident from America’s military adventures abroad. Can a war on domestic terror be waged, rhetorical or otherwise, while maintaining a distinction between the average Trump supporter and the potential domestic terrorist? Or, are we so far gone that the disgruntled are inseparable from the fanatics? One hopes not.

In his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis calls for a “universal aspiration to fraternity.” “By ourselves,” he warns, “we risk seeing mirages, things that are not there.” The pope frames his thoughts around St. Francis’s encounter with the Egyptian Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil eight centuries ago. We often think of dialogue as taking place across civilizations. Yet, we cannot allow ourselves to forget the need for fraternity within civilizations. Social media has fractured us globally and locally, trapping us into our own reality bubbles. There is a twisted irony in the bans social media is now imposing, as if amputating the limbs it has itself animated. Fratelli Tutti invites us to dream “as a single human family,” which means we need a shared conversation, not the fractured kind mediated by algorithms.

Banning extremists from social media is a short-term solution to keep the kettle from boiling over. We need to be able to engage each other with sufficiently overlapping perceptions of reality. We have seen how a president’s words can break us. It’s time to see how they can begin to remake us. After the riots, Biden addressed the nation as commander-in-chief: “They weren’t protestors. Don’t dare call them protestors. They were a riotous mob. Insurrectionists. Domestic terrorists. It’s that basic. It’s that simple.” This voice speaks reassuringly to those who already see it his way. In the war on domestic terror, Biden’s inner voice of pastor-in-chief, the voice of radical reconciliation, must also be audible. That is the voice that will guide us in our long journey to restore the soul of our nation.

This reflection was originally published on the Keough School of Global Affairs’ “Dignity & Development” blog on Jan. 15, 2021. The blog provides in-depth analysis of global challenges through the lens of integral human development.

Photo: Doris A. and Lawrence H. Budner Theodore Roosevelt Collection, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University