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How we label the insurrectionists can impact our future liberties

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Editor’s note: Ryan James Solis will contribute essays to El Paso Matters that will be published each Thursday

Jan. 6, 2021, will be remembered through it’s images. Portraits from a nation in distress. Mourning the loss of five Americans, the desecration of the Capitol, and the interruption of that which made America the beacon of the free world, the peaceful transfer of power.

As the misguided and murderous violence proceeded, there, hung afar on the walls of the Capitol, stood the grand paintings of John Trumbull. Standing out among the crowd were his pieces, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis and Declaration of Independence. So striking the image was, to see the demeanor, strength, and character of Washington, Jefferson, and Adams standing tall in the distance while in the forefront deeply unserious people committed deeply serious crimes. 

John Trunbull’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Indendence hangs in the U.S. Capitol.

As the events unfolded in real time on my laptop, there was a realization that there was no fast-forward button, no button to skip this scene and reassure oneself that the good guy comes out on top. There was no guarantee liberty would prevail. 

As time passed, the riot was controlled and the election certified. Despite this, amid 24/7 punditry on Twitter and TV, there seems to be, in true 2020-2021 fashion, another crisis brewing — a crisis of labeling what exactly these rioters were. The clearest example of this crisis is seen in the widespread characterization of insurrectionists as domestic terrorists

I am in complete agreement with the resentment and anger caused by this horrendous event, but disagree, rather profoundly, with the near-flippant use of this dangerous label. 

The term terrorist, while striking in a speech or tweet, is not simply a term of rhetoric. It’s a real and serious classification. The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act is the law that gives the president the power to deem individuals’ terrorists, even U.S. citizens. Once declared a terrorist, the citizen is stripped of their right to due process and habeas corpus, subjecting them to possible indefinite imprisonment without trial. No defense, no appeal, no jury of one’s peers. 

This, in part, was the issue when President Trump declared Antifa a terrorist organization, leading to the strange apprehension of citizens by Homeland Security agents with no identification. 

This danger is not only demonstrated in the present. Back in 2011, the FBI investigated Occupy Wall Street, a movement protesting the wealth held by the top 1% of Americans, as a terrorist organization.

In all these cases, and now with official domestic terrorism cases being opened for the raiding of the Capitol, officials apply the label of terrorist with no real and substantial benefit for the public peace.

Were the Capitol rioters terrorists? No, I don’t believe so, certainly not all of them. Perhaps, as more information is revealed, particular people will be justly deemed terrorists. But, given the grave risk in declaring citizens domestic terrorists one must, at the very least, refrain from painting labels with such a broad brush stroke.

Nonetheless, as the chapter of the last four years comes to a rough end, President-elect Biden has yet another crisis on his plate. It is not likely that Biden will seek reversal from the path of domestic terrorism rhetoric, having already called the insurrectionists terrorists, even adding in a press conference “don’t dare call them protesters.” 

In a sense, we are witnessing how the magic trick is done. Crisis presents itself; government asks the people for more power in the name of protection; the people, being so shaken by the crisis, agree to concessions; government never returns its borrowed power; thus emergency powers of the state become permanent.  

Make no mistake, this is not a defense of those who raided the Capitol but rather a defense of future liberties. It is a recognition that in the past, groups of people have been demonized as threats to the majority due to singled out characteristics. 

During McCarthyism, it was your political beliefs. During Stonewall, it was who you loved. During the civil rights movement, it was what you stood up for. During the “war on terror”, it was what your faith was. During the post-2021 era, it will be… ? It’s not clear what it will be. That’s the issue.

Once power is ceded to the government, as it relates to the curvature of rights, the state — with its internal agendas — can use said power as it wishes. To suppress those who criticize state injustice, to suppress those who are an inconvenience, to suppress those who are “different” from the majority. 

Perhaps there will come a time in the future, genuine grievance against the state being present, when serious protest is necessary and rational. Should this be the case, we must not let our response to the events of Jan. 6 to set a groundwork for the suppression of future free Americans. 

In essence, we are currently painting the mural of 2021, just like the ones painted by Trumbull hanging in the Capitol. As we continue to compose the details of our current predicament, let us commit to excluding the repression of freedom in the art of these events. 

Regardless of the pain caused by the raiding of the Capitol, let us hope that those guilty of crimes be punished by fair and just processes — and only fair and just processes. Let us hope that our actions in responding to this crisis set a modern framework for defending, against crisis,  the freedom and liberty of free people everywhere. 

Ryan James Solis

Ryan James Solis of El Paso is a junior at Harvard College on a gap year from studying history and economics. He is a Gates, Jack Kent Cooke, and Coca-Cola scholar.

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