The Duck of Minerva

Why we should call 1/6/21 a terrorist attack

6 January 2022

One year ago today, a pro-Trump crowd attempted to shut down the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory. America is still making sense of it. We’re debating how it could have been prevented, whether it can happen again, how to prevent it happening again. But there’s also a foundational debate about what to call the events of the day. I would argue 1/6/21 needs to be called a terrorist attack, for both conceptual and strategic reasons. And this need reveals the importance of the term “terrorism,” despite its many detractors.

What to call that day?

There have been various labels for the events of that day. Sidney Blumenthal called it an “insurrection.” The Nation characterized those involved as “coup plotters.” Others believe it was a case a “sedition.” Ted Cruz called it a terrorist attack.

CNN provided a helpful explainer for several of these terms. An insurrection is a “revolt” against the government. Sedition is an attempt to overthrow the government. And a coup involves overthrowing the government by a “small group.”

I suspect many have gravitated to these terms because of their combination of precision and seriousness. They are specific acts (and in the case of sedition, specific charges) that make clear the depth of the incident. They also avoid politically-charged moralizing debates that often surround whether or not an incident counts as “terrorism.”

1/6/2021 was meant to send a message about who was in charge.

But I (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) agree with Ted Cruz; 1/6/21 is best characterized as a terrorist attack.

In his classic Inside Terrorism, Bruce Hoffman gives us an extended discussion on the difficulties of defining terrorism. He argues we need to distinguish terrorism from other forms of political violence. Specifically, he claims that terrorism is different from an insurgency, acts by criminals or “lunatic assassins” and acts by the state.

Instead, terrorists consider themselves “altruists,” who will “achieve a greater good for a wider constituency.” Terrorism is:

  • “Political in aims and motives”
  • “Violent”
  • “Designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions”
  • Conducted by a non-state organization or individuals motivated by the “ideological aims” of a terrorist organization

1/6/2021 was clearly political; those involved had a political goal, to prevent Joe Biden from becoming President and keep Donald Trump in office. It was violent; in addition to property damage, Capitol Police officers were assaulted, resulting in several deaths.

The last two points may be debatable.

First, was this conducted by organized groups? The day most closely resembled a riot, a disorganized act, even if it was political. Yet, investigation has found clear signs of planning by organized movements. Researchers have identified over a dozen far-right groups that were participants in the riot, some of which had been involved in other disruptive acts over the prior year. And federal prosecutors have argued that the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys planned “their strategy ahead of time” and tried to “escalate” the violence at the rally.

One could still ask whether they count as “terrorist movements,” per Hoffman’s definition. This tends to be a bit of a circular argument, as a group is a terrorist movement if it conducts terrorism. But I tend to approach terrorism as purely a tactic, not an identity. The real question here, then, is whether 1/6/2021 involved organized political violence, in which case it would be terrorism. The answer is yes.

Second, was 1/6/2021 designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions? This is difficult to determine until more time has passed and researchers can learn more about those involved. Many of the rioters have said they were essentially “caught up in the moment;” while they were there for a political reason, they didn’t intend to commit violence. Others said they were “deceived” by false claims about the election by Trump and his allies.

Yet, it was clear that many involved wanted to send a message. We saw rioters carrying zip-ties, and some did seek out legislators. There is also the famous photo of the rioter vandalizing Speaker Pelosi’s office. There are also reports that the rioters specifically targeted Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

None of this was directly connected to disrupting the electoral vote count. Instead, these individuals were going after highly visible symbols of the social changes they feared and opposed. As a result, some have argued that the day was a racial and patriarchal backlash, hence the focus on people like Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez. Thus, 1/6/21 was meant to send a message to society about who was in charge.

Why does this matter?

One could argue this discussion doesn’t really matter, and that it distracts us from the more pressing needs of holding those involved accountable and making sure it never happens again. But I think it is important to clarify that this was an act of terrorism for both conceptual and strategic reasons.

Conceptually, we need to know what we’re talking about. “Coup,” “insurrection” and “sedition” are all accurate but incomplete descriptions of what happened that day. They miss the ideologically-charged nature of the attack and the broader psychological impact. They also stumble on the point Hoffman made about terrorism–terrorists see themselves as the “good guys.” They deny they were trying to overthrow a government; instead, they believe they were saving it.

This brings us to the second reason why it is important.

This may be the rare case where the pejorative, morally-loaded nature of the term “terrorism” has value.

Attempts to characterize 1/6/21 as a coup, insurrection, or act of sedition have stumbled in both public and legal debates. Skeptics claim that if it was a coup attempt, it was a clumsy and ineffective one. They point to its disorganized nature to push back on calling it an insurrection. And there’s a pretty high bar to charging someone with sedition.

But calling 1/6/21 “terrorism” invalidates attempts to minimize what happened that day.

It doesn’t matter if a terrorist attack succeeded in its goal–most fail dramatically–it was still terrorism. It doesn’t matter if only some of those who invaded the Capitol were part of an organized movement, as there are clear signs of such organization behind the attack. And it may be difficult to formally charge those involved with terrorism, but that is true even of groups like al-Qaeda.

This may be the rare case where the pejorative, morally-loaded nature of the term “terrorism” has value; by clearly denigrating the events of that day in a way that more precise, objective terms cannot.

The importance of the term “terrorism”

And that brings me to my final point.

As a terrorism scholar, I routinely encounter people who argue the term is hopelessly biased or useless. I engaged in such a debate on this site ten years ago [sidenote, I wish I hadn’t looked at the date]. I agree many use “terrorism” without a clear understanding of what it is, or use it in an inconsistent manner. But I’d suggest that means we need to clearly label all acts of terrorism as such, rather than getting rid of the term altogether.

January 6th 2021 makes this clear. America is facing a wave of right-wing extremist incidents, many of them violent, as I’ve discussed here. We need to call this what it is.