How Falsehoods Take Root

“On the afternoon of January 6, most Americans watched in horror as an armed mob stormed the US Capitol….” (Emphasis mine.)

This is part of the opening sentence of an essay in the Wall Street Journal by Steven B. Smith (weekend edition, Jan 23-24, C5). The piece is entitled: “The Two Enemies of Patriotism.” It’s described as adapted from the author’s forthcoming book to be published soon by Yale University Press. The author is a professor of political science at Yale. Even a superficial survey shows he possesses very good academic credentials. His PhD is from the University of Chicago. He seems to be a specialist in Spinoza, which I find especially disturbing, personally (more on this below).

My question: were the protesters who breached the US Capitol on January 6 “armed,” as Mr Smith asserts? The answer to this question matters because it’s one of the dividing line between two interpretations of the same events. In one interpretation, the notably unmasked protesters went too far and engaged in unlawful entry, small amounts of vandalism (some windows were broken), and in disorderly conduct – that most subjective of all kinds of law breaking – which, together, made the unaccountably thin line of Capitol police feel threatened and forced them to retreat. As I write, a little over one hundred and twenty participants have been charged, almost all with the kinds of crimes mentioned above. No one has been charged with murder or any other crime I would consider serious.

In the alternative interpretation, a real “insurrection” took place with the aim to….Well, no one explained what a credible aim the “insurrectionists” might have had besides what the protesters actually achieved: putting off a ceremonial congressional proceeding of counting electoral vote by several hours without altering its results in any way.

It seems to me that reasonable people should agree that the presence or not of real weapons marks the line dividing somewhat riotous protest from insurrection, which must be armed, it seems to me. Is there any historical example of an event called an “insurrection” when weapons were absent? Or is this a novel use of the word? I say “should agree” because in the two weeks since the event, what I think of as reasonable people seem to have largely vanished recently.

Here are the facts as I am able to gather them from the internet. After the breaching of the Capitol, police found two vehicles nearby (I don’t know how near), each with a varied panoply of weapons. Whether the owners broke any laws by carrying their several weapons, I can’t tell from the media reports. Here, I would like to have a baseline: In an ordinary day when nothing much happens, how many vehicles with weapons inside would be found in a police sweep of the same area? At any rate, none of those weapons were in the possession of the crowd that breached the Capitol’s weak defenses.

In addition, one identified Capitol protester (one) was arrested at his hotel in possession of a Taser. There is no reason to believe he had this weapon in the Capitol. (Burden of proof is on the accuser). Another protester was found with plastic ties in his possession while he was on Capitol grounds. He said he found them there. They might actually have fallen out of a Capitol policeman’s pocket. At any rate, whether plastic ties are “arms” is a real question. If a civilian without a weapon orders me to put my wrists behind my back so that he can secure them with plastic ties, I will just say “No.” Someone else?

The media made much of the news that several pipe bombs were also found on the ground not far from the Capitol. The first one found was at the National Republican Committee. I have to ask, of course: why on the ground, why at a Republican building? (Some really clueless Trump supporter?)

One protester present on the Capitol grounds during the breach did have a pistol; that’s one, one!

So far, as of today, two people died in the Capitol or as a direct result of the breach by Trump supporters. The latter were re-enforced by an unknown number of left wing radicals, or, at least, by one, a young man named Sullivan. I understand that one is one, that this fact may not mean much. Same rules apply against and for the argument I am making.

One Capitol policeman was killed by a heavy object (not precisely an “arm,” a weapon) by a person or by persons unknown. The killer or killers seem to have been present in the invading crowd.

Finally, a Capitol policeman shot to death one avowed Trump supporter from a short distance. The victim was allegedly killed while entering through a broken window. She was unarmed. I did not find a commentary about a Congressional legal policy making breaking-and-entering a capital case punishable by death. The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, had nothing to say on the topic although Congress is in charge of its own policing.

In brief: Using public sources, I don’t find the armed mob of Prof. Smith’s opening sentence. A “mob”? Maybe that’s a subjective designation, but I understand the impression that particular crowd made and I too think it was disorderly. But, I am pretty sure it takes more than one individual to make up a “mob.” So, either, it was not a mob, or it was not armed.

Why did Prof. Smith begin an essay surely only intended to promote his scholarly book with a reference to an armed mob, specifically, in spite of the shortage of supporting evidence? Four possibilities.

First, he lied shamelessly in the service of his ideological and political preferences, including a hatred of Trump supporters;

Two, Mr Smith displayed an appalling lack of information. It’s only appalling because the man is a scholar, and a political scientist to boot, one who should follow current political events a little carefully. One would reasonably expect him to be attentive when the word “insurrection” is used repeatedly.

Three, Mr Smith was a little distracted when he wrote the above lines, not especially interested, and he just followed passively the narrative prevailing in his faculty club with a care to preserving his dedicated place at the table in the same faculty club’s dining room.

Four, he thinks one protester with a handgun constitutes an “armed mob.”

The later possibility should not be brushed off too easily. We live under constant hysteria.

Mr Smith is a scholar of Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher. Spinoza was one of the originators of undiluted rationalism and thus, a founding father of Western civilization (thus far). He even paid a high personal price for his courage in renouncing the theological certainties of his age. I suppose you can be an expert on the works of another scholar and remain morally unaffected by his example. If this is uncommon, Mr Smith is showing the way.

Now, for consequences of word choice, just compare two short narratives about the same event;

“About one hundred to two hundred unmasked and mostly unarmed protesters forced their way into the Capitol. ‘Mostly unarmed’ because one protester was found to have a handgun.”

“…an armed mob stormed the Capitol….”

Which of these two narratives would lend implicit support to the view that Trump supporters should be treated as “domestic terrorists” with the expectable outcomes for individual rights?

Whatever the real explanation for Prof. Smith’s departure from the truth, it seems obvious to me that it constitutes one of the roots, a minor one perhaps, that will help grow and help propagate that particular falsehood. The fact that he is an academic operating from a respected university makes the verbal dishonesty worse. The fact that the falsehood appears in a well-esteemed and mostly conservative newspaper makes the breach of truth worse again.

I have been saying for months now that American universities are committing suicide. Professors’ irresponsibility, such as in this case one, are just another one of a thousand cuts. Very sad!

PS I voted for Mr Trump twice. I am a white supremacist, of course.

9 thoughts on “How Falsehoods Take Root

  1. I’ve been part of a protest “mob.”

    When we came up against a police line, the signs came off our sharpened sticks and you’re damn right we were “armed.”

    I’ve seen more than one picture of similar content — members of the mob waving sticks from which they’ve removed the signs, using flag staff as pikes, etc. — from the Capitol incident on June 6.

    Well-armed? No. Armed. No doubt about it.

    • Thomas Knapp :I respect your experience but, did you see sharpened sticks at the Capitol? Did anyone among the apparently tens of thousands of witnesses allege the presence of sharpened sticks? Pointing out that it could have been done does not show that it was done. Note that it would have also been easy for hundreds of Capitol protesters to hide handguns in their underwear. I wonder where your “No doubt about it” comes from.

    • “did you see sharpened sticks at the Capitol?”

      I wasn’t at the Capitol. I did, however, not sharpened sticks in the live coverage and in photos viewed later. Not a lot of them, but at least some.

      And even a non-sharpened stick is a weapon.

      Sorry to be pedantic, but “not well-armed” is not the same thing as “not armed.” I do rather doubt that most of the mob was violent or threatening, however.

    • Even unsharpened sticks can be weapons (against armed and trained policemen). And, if pressed, I could probably turn the elastic in my underwear into a slingshot. That would have made me an armed member of the mob, had I been there. Could you describe a wholly unarmed protester?

    • Jacques,

      I guess I can see your point. As an old Marine infantryman, I am by definition never unarmed, and sometimes forget that lesser mortals might need something more substantial than a stick for a frontal assault on the symbolic HQ of a major nation-state. Please carry on.

Please keep it civil

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