Drawing a Line at Violence: The Key to Uniting the Nation

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

Let me be clear: I have no sympathy for those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 — another day that should live in infamy. The rioters not only destroyed property and threatened the symbolic and structural center of our democracy, but evidence shows that at least some of them were intent not only on vandalism and destruction but on kidnapping and assassination. They deserve the harshest punishment that our criminal justice system can muster for seditionists, insurrectionists and traitors. And make no mistake: Donald Trump should be convicted by the U.S. Senate and forbidden from ever holding elective office again.

But let’s draw a line between those misguided souls who attended Trump’s rally on the morning of the 6th and then went home peacefully, and those malicious zealots who then went on to tear apart the Capitol, murder at least one police officer and threaten the lives of those working to do the people’s business inside. We need to think about those protestors who had been fooled into believing that Trump had won the election and raised their voices – but not their fists – in support of that delusional goal in an entirely different way than those who turned to violence. Finding a way to talk to those fellow Americans may be the key to moving forward as a diverse but unified nation.

Let’s draw a line between those misguided souls who attended Trump’s rally on the morning of the 6th and then went home peacefully, and those malicious zealots who then went on to tear apart the Capitol.

On September 11, 2001, we learned that the threat of international terrorism was no longer something we could ignore. In addition to necessary security enhancements, we quickly came to understand that not everyone with a similar demographic or ideological profile was intent on causing harm and most of us moved quickly to differentiate the large majorities of Muslims who shared the nation’s goals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness from a very small minority with more dangerous aspirations.

Almost twenty years later, we are now beginning to realize something that U.S. intelligence agencies have known for some time that domestic terrorism is now the gravest threat to our safety. While the death toll on 9/11 was obviously much greater, there is a case to be made that the Capitol riots of January 6 will have a similar impact on our collective consciousness as we recalibrate to protect ourselves against this very different type of menace.

The federal government is already mobilizing against the immediate danger of further violence on and around the day of the new president’s inauguration. More than 25,000 National Guard troops have been deployed to Washington, DC, and scores of other local and state authorities are preparing for potential disruptions at government buildings across the country.

Virginia National Guard soldiers on the east front of the U.S. Capitol on January 17, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

But we learned in 2001 that there is not enough law enforcement or military presence to protect every potential soft target in our communities. Even during the age of social distancing, it’s impossible to provide enough fortification to guarantee security for every shopping mall, sports event or other public gathering place. So as is the case when preparing for foreign intruders, security is only part of the solution when the potential instigators are from the homeland.

We now know that the most important protection against terrorist violence comes not from building walls or fences, but winning hearts and minds. The criminals who defiled the Capitol – like the assassins who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — must be penalized to the full extent of the law. But if the key to winning the war against foreign terror is to isolate radical and dangerous fanatics from the broader population, the same approach will be necessary to knit our own country back together. That means separating out the violent hate-mongers bent on destruction and death from those Americans who turned to Donald Trump out of fear rather than cruelty.

Uniting our country will require at least some of the 51 percent of the voters who supported Biden talking to at least some of the 48 percent who were for Trump. If we’re serious about healing, it will require reaching out to those with whom we disagree on public policy but who are willing to settle their arguments with words rather than clubs or guns.

Uniting our country will require at least some of the 51 percent of the voters who supported Biden talking to at least some of the 48 percent who were for Trump.

Some of those policy differences are profound, and many of the conversations about those differences will be exceedingly difficult. But to take Dr. King’s quotation one step further, listening now may be the best way to avoid more rioting in the future.


Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.

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