Alan Zendell, September 17, 2021
It’s almost a cliché, but historians and military leaders often criticize our defense strategy as investing America’s resources in figuring out how to re-fight the last war as opposed to realistically preparing for or trying to prevent the next one. Philosopher, novelist George Santayana coined another: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The thing about clichés is that they usually contain more than a grain of truth.
With all the emotions around memories of January 6th, those are the thoughts that dominate my anticipation of tomorrow’s planned rally at the Capitol. Some of the same people who attacked the Capitol eight months ago will be back in Washington to march in support of their friends who have been indicted or convicted of serious felonies as a result of actions committed during the insurrection.
The Department of Homeland Security, the National Guard, and the thirty-plus police forces that patrol the District of Columbia, notably the Capitol Police, are all feverishly working to avoid a repeat of January 6th, when they were caught woefully unprepared. In part, their failure was the result of politically motivated rules the Trump administration put in place that made it impossible for local forces like the Capitol Police to rapidly summon reinforcements. That’s like telling the fire department they can’t call in additonal units when a fire gets out of hand.
This time, protective fences were erected before tomorrow’s rally, instead of scrambling to fix our national barn door after the cows have left. This time, there will be no administrative barriers in place that prevent law enforcement agencies from coordinating their response to potential violence, and adequate reserves will be in place, ready to move. This time, the entire Congress will not be sitting ducks meeting in joint session under highly publicized and controversial circumstances. And this time, far fewer demonstrators are expected, both among right-wing extremist groups maintaining the Big Lie about the 2020 election and likely counter-protestors. So much for prevention and learning from past mistakes.
Is that enough to convince you we’re prepared this time? There’s another component of preparedness that you won’t hear discussed either in mainstream media or official press releases in advance of tomorrow’s rally, and it may be the most critical aspect of how we deal with angry mobs possibly bent on violence. Maybe cooler heads among the leaders of groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, who are under tight scrutiny by the FBI, will decide to stay home, or at least leave their weapons behind. It’s possible that the rage of the protestors will flame out like a thunderstorm that’s out of energy. It’s also possible that it might not. What if the rally turns violent?
Whenever there is a potential for armed conflict, whether from civil unrest or military action, it’s critical to have clearly defined Rules of Engagement. Every commander, supervisor, and first responder must be clear about how to react in any situation that arises – when to use containment, when to attempt to break up dangerous-looking mobs, when to employ tear gas and flash-bang grenades, and most important, when to respond with mass arrests or lethal force. The only time the public will learn about those Rules is after the fact, if violence erupts.
There are undoubtedly some on the law enforcement side who advocate a forceful, zero tolerance response rather than a passive, wait-and-see defensive posture. It’s the age-old debate most of us have encountered at some point in our lives. How does one deal with bullies and aggressors? History has taught time and again that appeasement only encourages more violence. Those who would force their will on others by bullying invariably interpret passivity as weakness, which leads to ever increasingly aggressive actions. And if bullies are heavily armed with deadly weapons and even deadlier ignorance and the false belief that their cause is righteous – we all know where that leads.
Europeans learned it prior to World War II. The countries of Eastern Europe learned it facing Communist expansionism in its aftermath. Israel learned it every day of its first twenty years of its existence. No one will say this out loud before tomorrow, but the real issue is when preemptive action is justified. Extremist groups are spreading rumors that their rally is a setup for mass arrests and incarceration, maybe worse. I abhor violence, especially the kind that happens when mob mentality takes over. But I still have to ask – under what circumstances is it appropriate to use lethal force preventively? That is being debated behind closed doors today.
This is a very precarious moment, what President Biden might refer to as a critical inflection point in our history. It’s worsened by statements from our self-serving former president that the prosecution of the January 6th offenders is unfair persecution.