Student Opinion: When Words Fail

(Source: CNN)

By Jacob Derin

The attack on the Capitol last week inaugurated a new era in the dismal history of Trumpism. Of all the lines Donald Trump has crossed, or shoved the country over, in his four years as President, this was the one that will define his legacy and shatter the country for years to come. When violence came to the Capitol, it showed America that words are no longer enough to bridge political divides.

Yet, instead of confronting this problem, the American political universe is split into two conversations that do not overlap. One camp simply denies that Trump supporters carried out the riots in the first place, and the other wants to make this about the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet another strand of the political conversation tries to equate the Capitol riots with the sporadic violence over the summer. The result is a terrifying quagmire of moral confusion.

The first claim is simply false. Antifa did not infiltrate the protests, nor was this some elaborate false flag operation. This was exactly what it looked like: a very stupid and equally deadly attempt at a violent coup d’etat.

I have heard so many people ask, “Would this have gone the same if the rioters were Black?” That is simply the wrong question in my book for multiple reasons. After a rebellion against the lawful government, incited by the sitting President, the most important questions are “how do we stop this from happening again?” and “how do we get this lunatic away from the nukes as quickly as possible?” 

Also, it’s the wrong question because politics more than race was the salient variable here. Trump didn’t act quickly to send in the national guard or mobilize any police response not because these were mostly white people attacking the Capitol but because they were his supporters, representing his interests. The police were largely overwhelmed by the mob and were unable to effectively respond because there simply weren’t enough of them. 

That being said, there are serious questions to be asked about the behavior of the Capitol Police, including the removal of barriers, taking selfies and standing down. I do not have the answer to those questions. They deserve answers, and I hope that we will have them soon. I suspect that the light deployment of police was in part exactly because of the heavy criticism the government endured after its crackdown on protests over the summer, though, as of now, we just don’t know.

The equation of the Capitol riots with the events over last summer is nothing less than sophistry. What happened at the Capitol was a rebellion against the government. It was a devastating blow to the rule of law and our status as a functional nation. It can in no way compare to sporadic looting at Black Lives Matter rallies.

Many lofty words have been exchanged over the past week about “freedom of speech” and “democratic norms.” We’ve heard so much about them that they’ve lost all meaning. Perhaps we’ve even seen the images from the riots so often that they, too, have lost all meaning. They shouldn’t. What happened at the Capitol building last week wasn’t a warning or a sign that things are “getting really bad.” It wasn’t even just “an assault on democracy.” It was a breach of the final line which separates a functioning state from a failed one: violence replacing words.

It occurred to me, watching the terrorists and rebels murdering a police officer and menacing the lives of our nation’s top elected legislators, that words had failed me. I don’t mean that I couldn’t speak, or even that I didn’t know what to say. I had plenty of verbiages to throw at my television screen. No, what I realized in that instant was that nothing I or any other human being on this planet could say would matter to these people. There existed no combination of words that could change the minds of the people who committed those crimes.

This is the most critical lesson of liberalism and the most sacred heritage of the democratic tradition: speech is the only alternative to violence. In ancient Athens, the world’s first democracy, men learned rhetoric as the primary method for exercising political power. In Christian mysticism, Christ is identified with logos, “the word,” which brought the world into being. Speech and words form the polity itself, and when they become impotent, so does the State.

What we saw on the Capitol steps, as officers of the federal government were overwhelmed by barbarians at the gate, was not only the result of policy or human failures but a glimpse of the chaos which lurks underneath our political reality. The United States is a legal fiction, nothing more than words on a page, animated by belief. Once that belief dissipates, it does too.

The line that we crossed doesn’t necessarily doom us to this fate, but it makes it, for the first time, a non-zero probability. At the same instant the mob breached the Capitol doors, it shattered the final bulwark against Trumpism’s fully-fledged assault on American federalism—it brought violence into the realm of political discourse.

The United States capital is now effectively under military occupation to secure it against the threat of violence. All 50 state capitals are facing a similar threat. The democratic process has failed, and all that is left to us, and the State, is to protect itself from insurrection through armed force.

Even as I write these words, I know that they will convince no one who isn’t already convinced of their truth. Need I add my voice to the chorus, which has been repeating this truism, for four long years? It can happen here.

Extremists across the country saw what happened last week and are eager to repeat it as often and with as many casualties as possible. To deter them, everyone who participated in the Capitol attack must be arrested and given the maximum possible criminal penalties. I cannot overstate how important that is. This cannot stand.

One image from the protests stayed with me, and I don’t think it’s gotten enough attention.

Somebody set up a gallows in front of the Capitol. To my eye, this is a symbol that can mean one of two things. It might be a reference to the white supremacist book The Turner Diaries, in an event called “The Day Of The Rope,” where all “race traitors” who married outside of their race or otherwise conspired with “the enemy” are hanged for treason. Or it could be a reference to a component of the QAnon conspiracy theory known as “The Storm,” a similarly apocalyptic event wherein Donald Trump will unseal indictments against satanic pedophiles in the U.S. government and execute them.

These people mean what they say, and I take them at their word.

If this country has any hope of pulling itself back from the brink, it must find a way to embrace the power of words again and reject the horrors of violence. I just hope it’s not too late.

Jacob Derin is a third-year English and Philosophy major at UC Davis.

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  1. Ron Oertel

    It can in no way compare to sporadic looting at Black Lives Matter rallies.

    Good article, until running across the “description” above.  😉

    Stopped reading, at that point.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Have any good English Comp professor read your piece, and you will likely get the input you seek.

        I kinda’ agree with Alan’s sentiments as I understand them…

        And I’ll speak for myself… I thought it was not concise… like using a shotgun/”scatter gun” to kill a horde of flies/locusts… pick your metaphor…

        You often conflated actions, words, symbols, with no real way to connect the dots for your ‘audience’.  You are far, very far, in being alone in that… entire campaigns, including presidential ones, even very recently, were actually almost ‘built’ on that…

        In this, I say what I mean, and mean what I say… but I’m no expert on English Comp.

        I hope you get constructive feedback, learn from it, and grow from it.

      2. Alan Miller


        Probably wasn’t a fairly explained comment.  I found previous comments a bit dismissive that they ‘just stopped reading’.  I didn’t agree with that particular narrative, either, but there was much to your article, and I found I agreed with some of it and not other points.  It was thick was research, examples, links, opinion and much of the subtopics are nuanced.

        I really wanted to engage, but realized this would take research and much writing because there was so much there, and I simply didn’t have the time.  I wanted to let you know I did read the entire article.  When I was done, my reaction was it was stimulating but exhausting, because it covered so much.  Maybe focusing more on a smaller, related topics and going a bit deeper with more explanation and less links.

        My 2¢, hope that helps.

        1. Jacob Derin

          Bill, I’m not sure I understand your objection. My argument rests on a comparison between two political events: the Capitol Riot and the BLM protests over the summer. The large majority of those protests were peaceful. There was some violence against people and property, and I find these actions totally unacceptable, not least because many of them were directed at businesses owned by racial minorities. This is self-defeating and pointless.

          However, the Capitol Riot was an attempt to, if not overthrow the government, at least disrupt its orderly operation. If you fail to see the difference in magnitude between these events then I would suggest that you’re not paying close enough attention.

          As for the symbols and words, these matter because they signal intent. We can be reasonably certain that there were right-wing extremists at the riot, and that their intentions were violent.

          It’s not possible to understand this threat without understanding the ideologies and beliefs which support it. That’s why this article contains so much varied information. It’s a complicated issue, and an important one to confront with sufficient intellectual engagement.

  2. Tia Will

    While I fully agree with the author about the power of words, I would add that they are not our only bulwark against violence. Economic actions, strikes, boycotts, slowdowns of many sorts are alternatives. In these times of the pandemic, the simple act of distancing, masking, and disinfecting are potent messages that taking care of each other as a community is an alternative. Sometimes, demonstrating the best behaviors is more potent than talking about them.

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