Words shape public opinion and even define our perception of reality, so the language we choose to represent people and events matters.
The terrifying assault on our Capitol on January 6, 2021, has been described as protests that turned into riots, an insurrection, an armed standoff, and an attempted coup.
Good choice of words. That’s exactly what it was.
However, the people who perpetrated the chaos continue to be called protesters, demonstrators, Trump supporters, MAGA activists, and a Pro-Trump Mob. Save the last, these words minimize their violent choices and paint them as misguided revolutionaries, a term that carries a more romantic connotation than, say, insurgents.
With increasing frequency, the media accurately dubs them insurrectionists, traitors, and domestic terrorists bent on overthrowing the election, a seditious act that threatened our very democracy—one much more fragile after the Trump Administration has repeatedly shaken it to its very core. However, many GOP pundits, representatives, and the public still downplay the coup by shouting about the First Amendment rights and calling it a protest or demonstration.
Using words like “protester” to describe these dangerous people dilutes the meaning by minimizing the actions of the seditious mob who scaled the Capitol walls, infiltrated the Senate Chambers, and engaged in an armed standoff with law enforcement (killing one and injuring dozens), conflating their behavior with nonviolent protesters brandishing signs and chanting clever rhymes.
Similarly, the word “riot” has been so misused over the last year that it’s nearly lost all meaning. Nightly during the BLM protests in Portland, the police would arbitrarily declare a “riot” and “unlawful assembly,” even though neither of those things were happening. This would give them their twisted justification to start gassing, beating, and shooting nonviolent protesters with “less lethal” ammunition. Dressed head-to-foot in riot gear, the police would do their worst to unarmed protesters night after night after night.
If a nonviolent protest is an “unlawful assembly” and shaking a fence is a “riot,” then what would one call the actions at the Capitol? Surely it was a literal riot, but if the same word is used for both scenarios without anything to indicate severity or a spectrum of behavior, they become equal in people’s minds.
Perhaps some people are hesitant to use accurate words to describe these people and their actions because the words that fit are reserved for external enemies. Words like terrorists, insurgents, insurrectionists, extremists, radicals, and traitors seem to be used only for the bad guys in the Middle East (or in the case of Trump and his supporters, for Democrats, Leftists, and Antifascists). Even those news sources who have the courage to call these terrorists by that word qualify it with “domestic,” as if a proper terrorist can only have brown skin, not white skin. It perpetuates the narrative that the crimes perpetrated by people of color are worse than the crimes of white people.
It’s important to consider the definition of these terms and contemplate why we’re so hesitant to use them when it comes to white Americans. Terrorist is defined as ““a person, usually a member of a group, who uses or advocates terrorism,” which is ““the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.”
An insurgent is “a person who rises in forcible opposition to lawful authority, especially a person who engages in armed resistance to a government or to the execution of its laws.”
A traitor is “a person who commits treason by betraying his or her country” (Treason: “the offense of acting to overthrow one’s government”)
Insurrection accurately describes the events at the Capitol yesterday, as it’s defined as “an act or instance of rising in revolt, rebellion, or resistance against civil authority or an established government,” which is sedition (“incitement of discontent or rebellion against a government”).
The media (including Fox News), all of our leaders, and We The People need to use these words to describe Wednesday’s horrific actions because only then will all Americans understand the dangerous threat these terrorists pose. These insurgents are itching for Civil War, and they haven’t been shy about saying so, which is one reason the virtual absence of law enforcement was so shocking. The insurgents openly spoke about bringing guns and inciting violence before their arrival, and they were armed, unlike the nonviolent BLM protests in DC last year. Yet, the response and treatment by officers couldn’t be more different. This is in part because we as a culture don’t see white people as dangerous, when in fact they are the most dangerous.
Perhaps if we call these dangerous people what they are—terrorists leading an insurrection to thwart our democratic processes and install a sociopathic despot through acts of violent sedition—they will be treated as such. Instead, police took selfies with them, escorted some into and out of the Capitol, and fell back to “let them do their thing.” Turns out “their thing” was to terrorize Congress, infiltrate their offices, murder a police office by bludgeoning him to death, and drop pipe bombs inside the Capitol (which thankfully didn’t detonate) while the American people watched it unfold, terrified.
If we use accurate words to describe these toxic, delusional insurgents and their seditious choices, it might convey the severity of the situation and appropriately produce the horror in the hearts of all Americans as to why they weren’t arrested on site for treason.