Because they could. And because there was precedent.
No, not the British, who burned the US Capitol Building along with most of official Washington, DC, in 1814. This comparison is pertinent mostly only because yesterday’s event was “the first time a malicious group has breached the U.S. Capitol since the British in August 1814.”
But the organization of yesterday’s “malicious group” has yet to be determined, and it certainly was not at the direct behest of a legitimate foreign state in a time of war. It is incorrect even to compare it to the attempt by the Confederacy to burn a “feebly” defended Washington in 1864.
One precedent might be the “the only coup d’état ever to take place on American soil,” in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, in which “the local government that was elected two days prior [was] overthrown and replaced by white supremacists.”
But more pertinently, in the Trump era, was the 2020 occupation of the Michigan statehouse, in which “protestors” armed with long guns “rallied” inside and tried to gain entrance to chambers, and lawmakers. (The media quailed from calling it anything worse, like terror, because it was technically legal to bear arms inside the building.) If you remember, Donald Trump “threw his support behind demonstrators at the time, tweeting ‘LIBERATE MICHIGAN’. Some critics said his tweets were an attempt to foment insurrection.” Part of this furor included a far-right plot to kidnap the Governor of Michigan.
Even during the Obama administration, radical militias were allowed to gather in “defense” of the Bundy family, in 2014, and to point weapons at law enforcement with impunity. This permissiveness led to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge building takeover, in which “law enforcement allowed the militants to come and go from the federal refuge at will.” After an armed standoff, only one radical, thought to be reaching for his weapon during capture, was killed, and sentences were ludicrously light. (Many of my veteran friends, with all sorts of political beliefs, were sure the occupiers would be taken out in seconds by the FBI tactical unit.)
Now, even Lindsay Graham, who says he “prayed” for Joe Biden not to win, and who still proudly believes Trump is his own “consequential President,” has had enough. “Those who made this attack on our government need to be identified and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,’ Graham tweeted. “Their actions are repugnant to democracy.” He agreed with Joe Biden in calling it “insurrection.”
But is there something more sacrosanct about the physical governing space of the US Capitol, or the lives of US Congress members, than a statehouse, or state, regional, or local officials? Than civilians, including children killed by gun violence? Not in any humane sense, and when you ignore “lesser” symbols, they have a way of becoming antecedents to issues you can no longer ignore. (Note how the pageantry of death inflicted on George Floyd caused millions to take to the streets.)
There are already calls for an investigation into how terrorists ever crossed the threshold of the doors of Congress, and there are already answers that will likely stick no matter what the investigations reveal about Capitol Police. Those in varying positions of power saw those advancing threateningly on the Capitol as within their rights—rights not afforded legitimate and peaceful protestors with genuine grievances (say, the historically disproportionate killing of Black men by police).
Long trains of illegitimate thought have transported us to this moment. They may be shunted for a time from the main track but still have power, and their shrieks can be heard across the yards.