Acton Institute Powerblog

The four cultural crises revealed by the D.C. riots

(Photo credit: Lev Radin/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images.)

On Wednesday, rioters broke into the U.S. Capitol building, vandalized the halls of government, and caused mayhem that left five people dead, including Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick. These sickening scenes of destruction did not come out of the blue. They grew naturally out of cascading failures rippling through the culture, the government, and the church.

The D.C. riots reveal the deep failure of the government. How could rioters breach the sanctuary of our republic? “Enormous strategic and planning failures” by multiple police forces under numerous layers of government according to Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who chairs the panel responsible for funding the Capitol Police. He said that the D.C. Metropolitan Police – who are under the control of the local government – were supposed to join Capitol Police, the D.C. National Guard, and SWAT teams in preparations to assure the protesters would not be “anywhere near the Capitol” – a concern echoed by a “senior law enforcement official from a major department.” Instead, the Capitol Police erected a weak barrier and found themselves overwhelmed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday that the riots “represented a massive failure of institutions, protocols, and planning that are supposed to protect the first branch of our federal government.”

Those angered by the disparity between the National Guard’s response to the MAGA crowd compared to Black Lives Matter protesters, or puzzled that law enforcement did not conduct background intelligence of the crowd, can thank D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. She insisted the government deploy only 114 National Guard members at a time and ordered, “No DCNG personnel shall be armed during this mission, and at no time, will DCNG personnel or assets be engaged in domestic surveillance.” Instead, D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee said Guardsmen would be restricted to “crowd management” and overseeing traffic, mostly at the city’s Metro subway stations. “Under these authorities, the Guard was essentially acting like traffic cops,” one defense official told Time magazine. Incredibly, Bowser cited her response as proof that “we must get statehood.”

D.C.’s local government apparently made it harder to prevent furry-hatted invaders from storming the walls of a soon-to-be fully Democratic-controlled Congress. This is the territory progressives want to make the 51st state? Why should D.C. have a greater voice in ruling over all U.S. citizens when it cannot furnish the most basic government functions to its own? The District of Columbia’s abysmal performance in safeguarding the seat of our government should thoroughly discredit any push to grant it statehood.

The Capitol vandalism uncovers the failure of our coarsening political culture, which has normalized and celebrated political violence. Partisan hatred – which already burned intensely long before the 2016 election – sparked into depicting the president’s assassination or beheading, glorifying mass arson and looting as “reparations,” and intimidating a helpless couple who refused to mouth the political slogans of a crazed mob. This list of politicians mainstreaming the verbal or physical assault of their opponents, drawn up by Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, proves depressingly instructive.

The Capitol invaders uniquely embodied the failure of conservatism. Early claims that Antifa led the riots proved mistaken. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, told Glenn Beck on Thursday morning that the vandals he saw “were just kind of normal people, but they got carried away.”

For the first time in modern history, political violence has become bipartisan.

Facial recognition software disclosed the presence of neo-Nazi members of the Alt-Right. True conservatives have protested through legal channels, because they hold with John Locke that “[l]iberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others; which cannot be where there is not law.”

Yet a growing number of pundits on the Right believe the ends justify trashing all legal barriers that stand in the way of their designs, including the U.S. Constitution. They have accepted the progressive (read: Marxist) belief that free speech and private property will be respected only if they advance one political ideology. The difference between those who barge into Nancy Pelosi’s office and those who want to use the levers of the state to seize private colleges’ endowments is one of degree, not of kind.

Most critically, the D.C. riots display the failure of faith. Presumably, some of those who stormed the U.S. Capitol are Christians. Believers must be subject to the authorities or risk resisting God and committing a sin comparable to “witchcraft.” The fact that Christians are willing to commit property damage demonstrates the grip that “the mystery of lawlessness” has over people of faith. In A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More expounds on why Christians should uphold the law for everyone:

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law?
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And, when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat. This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and, if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Obedience to secular authorities is never absolute. Christians must disobey laws forcing them to compromise their faith or morality. When Christians have no alternative but to choose between fealty to God or government, they follow God’s law – and, like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., they willingly suffer the penalty. “Unearned suffering is redemptive,” MLK said, because God’s grace let us “transform the suffering into a creative force.”

Christianity has always brought redemption out of righteous suffering. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” wrote Tertullian. The blood spilled at the U.S Capitol on Wednesday sows only our impending social disintegration.

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.