The New York Times has published a video account of the January 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol that anyone interested in understanding our constitution should watch. Because of the dangers to constitutional government which it depicts, the video fully justifies the appointment of Congressman Bennie Thompson’s committee to compile an even more authoritative account.
The men who wrote our constitution in 1787 believed that the democracies of ancient Greece failed because they were subject to the passions of a mob. They feared a mob even if it were made up of the wisest men. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”
As a check on direct democracy and the possibility of mob rule, the framers created a system of representative government in which elected officials would meet in a remote capital and engage in reasoned debate. They called the form of government they created the “republican form of government.”
The mob attack on the U.S. Capitol as Congress gathered to certify the election of President Biden demonstrated the kind of mob rule Hamilton feared. It thus struck not just at a particular election but at the very reason for Congress’ existence. We no longer need to look to ancient Greece to understand what he and the other framers were trying to prevent. If the mob had, by whatever means, “stopped the steal,” it would have been a constitutional tragedy.
The Times’ July 1 video report relies on surveillance film from the Capitol, as well as material obtained using the Freedom of Information Act and the internet. Titled, “Day of Rage: How a Mob Stormed the Capitol,” the video comes with a warning that it is not suitable for all audiences. It includes shocking violence, including pictures of the mob beating and mocking police, and ample vulgarity.
As the video demonstrates, when President Trump asked those at his peaceful rally to march to the Capitol, he triggered a violent assault. The physical attack on the Capitol began even before his subsequent Twitter attack on Vice President Mike Pence. The marchers who heeded his call approached the Capitol from the west where the violence began. Many of them surely knew they were joining a riot. In fact, one striking aspect is that there appears to have been no organized peaceful protest at the Capitol. The men with megaphones did not make speeches. Rather, they shouted “Do you want your house back? Take it.”
They were led by groups such as the Oath Keepers, the white supremacist Proud Boys -- to whom President Trump had appealed in his campaign -- and believers in the QAnon conspiracy theories. Many of them were clad in camouflage, wore body armor, and carried baseball bats, chemical sprays, tasers, and even hockey sticks.
When the mob broke into the Capitol, the Senate quickly adjourned. The video shows how Capitol policeman Eugene Goodman first warned senators not to use a vulnerable exit and then confronted the mob, alone, and tricked them into chasing him up the stairs and away from the escaping Senators. It was a remarkable performance.
Other stories have sadder endings. The House remained in session until the mob reached its chamber. Congressmen clutching gas masks escaped through an exit. The mob saw them through glass doors. When a policeman with the Congressmen was temporarily left as their sole defender, he pointed his pistol at the doors. The mob nevertheless broke through the glass, a woman jumped through the opening, and the policeman shot her dead. Outside, the mob trampled a woman in the mob who had collapsed. She too died.
Eventually, calls to local police were answered and, after four hours, order was restored. In part because of the Pentagon’s fear of “bad optics,” the National Guard, stationed 20 minutes away, was the last to arrive.
The Times report, and others like it, mark a new era in journalism. No account so vivid, dramatic and compelling would have been possible in the days before surveillance cameras, smart phones, and website publication.
Congressman Thompson’s committee, like the video, will be able to examine the full context and go beyond the more limited evidence that would be admissible in individual criminal trials. But it will also have a subpoena power and resources that the newspaper lacked. If news organization accounts need correcting, it can do that.
But for now the video fully justifies his task. After all, the Congress the framers created to keep mob passion out of government was itself attacked by a mob. How that happened, for the first time in the nation’s history, could not be more important.
And, once the “Stop the Steal” campaign left the courts in defeat because there was no evidence that fraud influenced the election, those who advocated direct action violated the express prohibitions of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1866. That law allows a damage suit against anyone who conspires to prevent a federal official from holding office or from performing its duties. It also makes it unlawful for a person who has the power to prevent such a conspiracy to fail to stop it. It is instructive that what we now know about Klan violence in the 1860s comes mostly from 19th century Congressional hearings.
Luther Munford is a Northsider.