“Tyranny in form is the first step towards tyranny in substance,” warned Senator John Taylor two hundred years ago in his forgotten classic, Tyranny Unmasked. As the massive National Guard troop deployment in Washington enters its second month, much of the media and many members of Congress are thrilled that it will extend until at least mid-March. But Americans would be wise to recognize the growing perils of the militarization of American political disputes.
The military occupation of Washington was prompted by the January 6 clashes at the Capitolbetween Trump supporters and law enforcement, in which three people (including one Capitol policeman) died as a result of the violence. Roughly eight hundred protestors and others unlawfully entered the Capitol, though many of them entered nonviolently through open doors and most left without incident hours later.
The federal government responded by deploying twenty-five thousand National Guard troops to prevent problems during President Joe Biden’s swearing-in—the first inauguration since 1865 featuring the capital city packed with armed soldiers. Protests were almost completely banned in Washington for the inauguration.
Instead of ending after the muted inauguration celebration, the troop deployment was extended for the Senate impeachment trial.
Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) declared:
“So long as Donald Trump is empowered by Senate Republicans, there is still the chance that he is going to incite another attempt at the Capitol.”
But the Senate vote on Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) motion labeling the trial as unconstitutional signaled that the trial will be anticlimactic because Trump is unlikely to be convicted. The actual trial may be little more than a series of pratfalls, alternating between histrionic Democratic House members and wild-swinging, table-pounding Trump lawyers. A pointless deluge of political vitriol will make a mockery of Biden’s calls for national unity.
Then the troop deployment was extended into at least mid-March because of unidentified threats made to members of Congress. Acting Army Secretary John Whitley announced last week:
“There are several upcoming events—we don’t know what they are—over the next several weeks, and they’re concerned that there could be situations where there are lawful protests, First Amendment–protected protests, that could either be used by malicious actors, or other problems that could emerge.”
“We don’t know what they are” but somebody heard something somewhere, so the military deployment will continue. Threats have occurred in waves toward members of Congress at least since the farm crisis of the 1980s, but prior menacing did not result in the occupation of the capital city.
Perpetuating the troop deployment is also being justified by melodramatic revisionism. In congressional testimony last week, Capitol Police acting chief Yogananda Pittman described the January 6 clash at the Capitol as “a terrorist attack by tens of thousands of insurrectionists.” Apparently, anyone who tromped from the scene of Trump’s ludicrous “I won by a landslide” spiel to the Capitol was a terrorist, or at least an “insurrectionist” (which is simply “terrorist” spelled with more letters). Is “walking on the Mall with bad thoughts” sufficient to get classified as a terrorist in the Biden era?
Placing thousands of troops on the streets of the nation’s capital could be a ticking time bomb. The longer the National Guard is deployed in Washington, the greater the peril of a Kent State–caliber catastrophe. The Ohio National Guard’s volley of fire in 1970 that killed four students and wounded nine others was a defining moment for the Vietnam era.
Forty years later, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published an investigation of the Kent State shooting based on new analyses of audio recordings from the scene. The Plain Dealer concluded that an FBI informant who was photographing student protestors fired four shots from his .38-caliber revolver after students began threatening him. That gunfire started barely a minute before the Ohio National Guard opened fire. Gunshots from the FBI informant apparently spooked guard commanders into believing they were taking sniper fire, spurring the order to shoot students. The informant denied having fired, but witnesses testified differently. (The FBI hustled the informant from the scene and he later became an undercover narcotics cop in Washington, DC.) Though there is no evidence that the FBI sought to provoke carnage at Kent State, FBI agents involved in COINTELPRO (the Counterintelligence Program) in the 1960s and 1970s boasted of “false flag” operations which provoked killings.