The House of Representatives has charged Donald Trump with “incitement of insurrection.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told her caucus, “The president chose to be an insurrectionist.” Should she have added that the president also chose to be terrorist?
Terrorism depends on a paradox. On the one hand, the whole point of terrorist violence is to deliver message. It may be to strike a blow against a perceived oppressor, to deliver a nation from its colonial overlords, to start a race war, or revenge an outrage committed against a particular group.
When in 1605, a group of disaffected Catholics, including Guy Fawkes, tried to blow up the English Parliament along with the royal family, they did it in response to James’ oppression of their co-religionists. After they were captured, the plotters spoke openly and at length about their motivations.
In the nineteenth century, Irish nationalists were equally upfront about why they were planting dynamite bombs in the London underground, a variety of train stations, and Westminster Abbey: they wanted England out of Ireland.
After Osama bin Laden crashed three fully loaded planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (a fourth went down in a field in Pennsylvania), he released an essay explaining his actions, “Why We are Fighting You.” Similarly, Timothy Earnest and Patrick Cruisius, white nationalists responsible for the shootings at the Chabad in Poway, California and a WalMart in El Paso, Texas respectively, released manifestos explaining and justifying their actions.
To gain maximum attention, each iteration of terrorism tries to outdo the previous one. While monarchs had died violently before 1605, nobody before thought to “decapitate the nation,” as Sir Edward Coke put it, by slaughtering the entire government in one fell swoop. Nobody before the Fenians targeted cultural monuments instead of people. Before the 1972 Munich Massacre, the Olympic Games were largely considered an apolitical event and the athletes off-limits as targets. Nobody before Al Qaeda thought to use commercial airplanes as guided missiles.
But because each new iteration of terrorism breaks with previously accepted rules and limits on political violence, the act is so overwhelming that the message gets lost. Literally, the deed becomes “unspeakable.” Coke said that he had no idea what to call the Gunpowder Plot: “This treason doth want a name.” Despite the Fenian openness about the reasons for the dynamite campaign, nineteenth century commentators regularly condemned their attacks as senseless, unprecedented, and beyond reason: “a course of scoundrelism for which barbarism has no parallel and the English tongue no words strong enough to describe.” 9/11 elicited similar responses. The New York Times described New Yorkers as witnessing “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the unthinkable.”
Which brings us to Donald Trump and his instigating an attack on the Capitol that left five people dead, including a policeman who died from a fire extinguisher to the head. Was the Capitol riot an act of terrorism?
Certainly, if the point of terrorism is to terrify, then yes, a mob rampaging through the Capitol definitely qualifies. As reported in the Washington Post, an unnamed advisor to Mitch McConnell heard a “cacophony of screaming, shouting and banging” from the floor below and walked to the Rotunda to see what was happening. He met a Capitol Police Officer sprinting in the opposite direction who advised the aide to “run!” He found an open office, lunged inside, and barricaded the door while a howling crowd rushed by. This man was terrified. Anyone would be.
But terrorism also requires a message, a purpose to the violence. The Fenians wanted Irish independence. The PLO and Black September want a Palestinian nation. Similarly, participants in the Jan. 6 insurrection all had their reasons. Some rioted for the same reason terrorists often give to justify their action. Feeling ignored by those in power, they demanded the world hear their voices: “We are here. See us! Notice us! Pay attention!” said a retired landscaper from North Carolina. Others joined the crowd to support various flavors of white supremacy, such as the Proud Boys and the Three Percenters. Some waved Confederate flags. Believers in the QAnon conspiracy theories also stormed through the halls of power. But they were all united in a single goal: to “stop the steal.”
Did Trump instigate an insurrection? In his speech to the crowd that day, Trump said that they had to “fight much harder” against “bad people,” to show strength at the Capitol,” and “you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.” While Trump added that he wanted his followers to be peaceful, that was not the message they heard. A man who threw a fire extinguisher at police said that he was “instructed” by Trump. Another man tried to excuse his actions by claiming “I thought I was following my president.”
Trump’s words plus the response fit perfectly the FBI’s definition of domestic terrorism: “the unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or Puerto Rico without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
By telling the crowd “you’ll never take back our country with weakness — you have to show strength and you have to be strong,” causing a rampage through the Capitol, with some demanding “Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!” while a gallows loomed outside, and others shouted “Tell Pelosi we’re coming after that bitch,” Trump and his followers crossed the line separating political action from terrorism.
But there’s more. Joseph Conrad perfectly captured the essence of terrorism in The Secret Agent (1907) when M. Vladimir gives the hapless Verloc a lecture on “the philosophy of bomb throwing.” Random acts of violence don’t qualify. Neither would a massacre or a “mere butchery” because “Murder is always with us. It is almost an institution.” For the desired effect, you not only have to do something original, something that had not been done before, you have to attack “the sacrosanct fetish” of the age. Only then will get the desired result, “an act of destructive ferocity so absurd as to be incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable.”
For Conrad, the fetish of the age was science, and so, M. Vladimir urges Verloc to bomb the Greenwich Observatory. But for Americans, perhaps surprisingly, it is the Capitol. Over and over again, we hear that the insurrectionists did not just invade government buildings; rather, they invaded “the inner sanctum of American government.” An article at Politico described the uploaded videos as recording “the invasion of the inner sanctum of American democracy.” Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne mourns “the desecration of our nation’s Capitol.” The use of “sanctum” and “desecration” are not accidents, but indicative of how these buildings represent ideals that go well beyond the moment. They recall the original meaning of “sanctum,” which is holy. The Capitol is, for Americans, literally a sacred space, and it should be inviolable.
The Jan. 6 rampage got exactly the response M. Vladimir wanted. The spectacle of a President rejecting, against all evidence, the results of an election he lost, urging his followers to sack Capitol Hill, which they quickly did, was so unprecedented, broke so many rules, so many conventions, that no words seemed adequate to describe the event.
For Sen. Pat Toomey, Trump “engaged in activity that was absolutely unthinkable and unforgivable.” Nancy Pelosi stated that “the president has committed an unspeakable assault.” The Republican Party of Virginia condemned the mob’s sacking of the Capitol as “unspeakable, disturbing, and horrifying acts of violence.” Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow called the rampage “an incomprehensible spectacle.” Even Betsy DeVos, a Trump loyalist if there ever was one, denounced both the insurrection and Trump as “an unspeakable assault on our nation and our people.
By every definition, then, Donald J. Trump fomented a terrorist attack on the Capitol. Using the FBI definition, Trump encouraged his followers “to intimidate or coerce a government … in furtherance of a political goal,” i.e. overturning the election results and giving Trump a second term.
The mob’s invasion of the Capitol, however, was such an enormous breach with previous norms that even though the aims were clearly stated, their acts had “the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy.” Like the Gunpowder Plot, like 9/11, the Jan. 6 insurrection is “unspeakable.”
Even though the violation of the Capitol on Jan. 6 may leave us speechless and raw, nonetheless we have the tools to respond appropriately. Trump has been impeached by the House. Now, it is up to the Senate to complete the job, convict Trump, and ban him from holding public office ever again. Then, once Trump is no longer president, he should be indicted under Section 802 of the Patriot Act for domestic terrorism, as Trump intended “to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.”
Trump allies such as Lindsay Graham claim that the Senate should dismiss the House’s article of impeachment because trying the ex-President would an act of “vengeance and political retaliation” and would only exacerbate the nation’s divisions.
They are wrong. This nation will not heal by ignoring Trump’s crimes and hoping he slinks away in disgrace, but by making him fully accountable for his crimes and for instigating an insurrection.
Because Donald J. Trump is a terrorist.
Peter C. Herman is professor of English literature at San Diego State University. He has published on Shakespeare, Milton and the literature of terrorism, and has essays in Salon, Inside Higher Ed, as well as Times of San Diego. His most recent book is “Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11” (Routledge, 2020).