Don't Call It an 'Insurrection' | Opinion

It may be too late to alter the designation, but politicos and pundits make a major mistake when they refer to the January 6 U.S. Capitol riot as an "insurrection."

That title for a brutal, nihilistic spasm of disorganized violence gives the event far more dignity and gravity than it deserves. The use of such language only encourages the dangerous notion that acts of wanton and meaningless destruction possess some grand historic significance.

Unfortunately, the single article of impeachment, adopted by the House of Representatives on a bipartisan vote, charges President Trump with "incitement of insurrection." A recent article in The New Yorker bears the title, "Among the Insurrectionists," and attempts to probe the thought processes of the rioters as if they represent a significant strain in contemporary culture.

Yes, legal consequences—with hoodlums and thugs promptly arrested and prosecuted—will help discourage future deadly, despicable incidents. But public contempt should also play a role, and the term "insurrectionist" conveys far more respect than the more accurate identification of "rioter."

Dictionary consultation should help deter future deployment of the "I word" in discussing this case. The Cambridge Dictionary defines "insurrection" as "an organized attempt by a group of people to defeat their government or ruler and take control of the country, usually by violence."

The events of January 6 raise obvious questions about the applicability of that definition: How can any "group of people" hope to "defeat their government or ruler" when the head of government, the ruler himself, is a leading instigator of the violence?

Moreover, while investigations have revealed some evidence for planning and strategizing in the storming of the Capitol, no one has uncovered a vaguely plausible scheme for actually "taking control of the country." Recent reporting indicates that alert members of the Secret Service forced the vice president to abandon the House chamber for refuge in a safe room just minutes ahead of a rampaging mob, equipped with zip-tie handcuffs, lustily chanting "HANG MIKE PENCE!" But even if the self-described "patriots" had succeeded in lynching the vice president, or kidnapping senators or representatives with whom they disagreed, they hardly possessed the ability to overturn an election.

The history of the United States features at least 30 violent "rebellions," according to the enumeration at Wikipedia, ranging from Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 (in which the governor of Virginia hanged 23 challengers to his authority) to Seattle's feckless "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone" of 2020, in which rioters drove cops out of their East Precinct headquarters and occupied six square blocks for three weeks. Only one of these eruptions appropriately earned the title "insurrection": the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, when bloodthirsty white supremacists in North Carolina overthrew the legally elected city government of Black citizens and their white allies, by slaughtering up to 300 locals and destroying scores of businesses.

Naturally, the Capitol rioters of January 6 would prefer not to associate themselves with such a horrific incident, preferring preposterous comparisons to American Revolutionaries and the Minutemen of Lexington and Concord. Prominent radio hosts happily obliged them, denouncing those who urged only peaceful protest and expressing gratitude that Sam Adams and Tom Paine hadn't listened to similar pleas for non-violence.

U.S. Capitol Hill riot on January 6
U.S. Capitol Hill riot on January 6 ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images

A retired military officer I've never met personally sent me an email announcing the intention to travel to Washington on January 6, prepared to die, if necessary, in an "armed insurrection." The note concluded with an image of Patrick Henry and his famous declaration: "Give me liberty or give me death!"

Such fantasies of martyrdom have little to do with either the realities of the American Revolution or the appalling actions, nearly 250 years later, at the U.S. Capitol. The Minutemen who stood their ground on Lexington Green didn't participate in a rowdy, aimless mob. They organized in response to an October, 1774 call from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to raise their militia strength above 17,000. Three years later, at the Second Continental Congress, the Founders demanded that "every State shall always keep up a well-regulated and disciplined militia, sufficiently armed and accoutered." In other words, the patriots who established our nation never intended an "insurrection" to overthrow established authority, but sought to defend the locally elected colonial governments they viewed as legitimate. Yes, street violence and vandalism by the Sons of Liberty and other groups played a role in pre-Revolution agitation, but thoughtful lawyers shaped the long struggle for independence with their unabashed obsession with the rule of law and consent of the governed.

Calling the storming of the Capitol an "insurrection" equates to glamorizing the devastating Rodney King Riots of 1992 (which claimed 63 lives) as "The Los Angeles Uprising." The destruction of nearly a billion dollars' worth of private property (mostly small businesses in L.A.'s Koreatown), like murdering a Capitol cop with a fire extinguisher to the head, served no cause or vision or purpose beyond the expression of self-consuming rage.

In this context, the mis-designation of the Capitol riot as an insurrection may end up strengthening the arguments of the former president of the United States if/when he mounts an impeachment defense. With the charge succinctly stated as "incitement of insurrection," he may challenge both the evidence for his personal, deliberate incitement and the assertion that the chaos he helped unleash constituted a full-blown, organized insurrection.

The best summary of the underlying accusations against the president came in the brief statement by Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking Republican in the House, as an explanation for her own vote to impeach Trump. "The president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the president. The president could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution."

Fair-minded Americans will find it difficult to specify a single sentence in her argument that counts as inaccurate. And they should also note that she altogether avoids the tricky, inappropriate word "insurrection."

Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of God's Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.