U.S. Capitol and Washington, D.C., police officers offered chilling and emotional testimony Tuesday before the House select committee on the Jan. 6 insurrection. Their responses had a lot in common: They all described violent assaults, fears that they would die and ongoing post-traumatic stress and psychological repercussions from the attack.
The officers were also unified in their choice of words: They repeatedly described the rioters as "terrorists."
The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has been called many things — a siege, an insurrection, a coup. But as the months have passed, some Republicans have pushed back against that language, arguing that the rioters were mostly peaceful protesters, that those who breached the Capitol were merely an unorganized and undisciplined mob or even, according to Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., that they were people walking around in a "normal tourist visit."
We've seen this kind of semantic smokescreen before, typically when white male mass shooters and terrorists are described as unhinged, crazy or insane. White men who commit extremist attacks are more likely to be described as mentally ill, while other terrorists are typically seen as being motivated purely by ideology. This has the effect of making white violent extremists seem less calculated — and less culpable — than they actually are.
The same dynamic is at play in the (somehow still ongoing) fight over how to label the events of Jan. 6. The most important outcome of Tuesday's select committee hearing may well be the clear and unequivocal repudiation of attempts to whitewash the attacks with softer language or labels.
The officers' firsthand accounts of what they encountered make it clear that the assault on the Capitol was an act of domestic terrorism. Officers were expecting civil disobedience, Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn said, but they were met with incredible violence. They encountered attackers equipped with tactical gear for military-type engagements, who physically assaulted them in hand-to-hand combat for hours. The attackers gouged officers' eyes; beat them with baseball bats, hockey sticks, rebar and flagpoles; and sprayed pepper spray and bear spray in their faces. Officer Dunn described being repeatedly called the n-word during the assault.
Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell described the fighting as like something "from a medieval battle," saying he thought he was going to die. Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone described being shocked with a stun gun and hearing rioters chant "kill him with his own gun"; he was later diagnosed with a concussion and a traumatic brain injury as a result of the violent assault. "You will die on your knees," Washington Police Officer Daniel Hodges said an insurrectionist told him.
The emotional testimony brought Reps. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., and Adam Schiff, D-Calif., to tears. It also should erase any lingering ambiguity.
Hodges read aloud the U.S. Code that defines domestic terrorism, which describes "acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States."
Even after hearing such horrific testimony, some may argue that the rioters got "swept up" in violence and that only a minority of attackers were part of the militant extremist fringe. Indeed, only 15 percent of those arrested so far are believed to be members of extremist groups, and most of the violence was most likely more spontaneous than had been planned. But by this country's own definition, spontaneous acts can still be terrorist ones. Attackers do not have to be members of terrorist groups to engage in acts of terrorism. And impulsiveness does not excuse criminal violence.
Whether they were planned or spontaneously mobilized, it is clear that the events of Jan. 6 were a domestic terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol. Rioters constructed a gallows and hung a noose outside the Capitol. They stormed the building equipped with flexi-cuffs, searching for elected officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, whom they missed by only a hundred feet — along with the nuclear "football" with the missile launch codes that accompany the vice president. They injured 140 officers. Five people died.
"They literally were there to stop the steal," Dunn said as he argued that we should acknowledge the political nature of the attack. "So when people say it shouldn't be political — it is. It was and it is. There's no getting around that."
This investigation should not be political. But the attack itself was. This was a violent, dangerous act aimed at interrupting the certification of the U.S. presidential election. By this country's own definition — as Tuesday's witnesses made clear — it was an act of domestic terrorism. These brave law enforcement officers experienced it firsthand. By reliving their experiences publicly, in sometimes agonizing and traumatic detail, they have done America a true service. We will see who was — and was not — listening.