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The Ethics of Insurrection

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

On January 6th, 2021, many Americans tuned into their television news stations only to witness scenes unseen in modern-day American history. On this day, the Electoral College was certifying the votes of the 2020 presidential election, in which Joe Biden was named the winner. Outside the walls of the United States Capitol, a protest against the election results ensued. It began as a rally near the White House, where then President Donald Trump spoke to thousands of his supporters. Much of the speech touched on voter fraud, and the perception that the election had been unfairly won by Biden.

As much as we would like to believe that our media sources are giving us the news without any agenda of their own, I think it’s safe to say that these outlets have a tendency to skew perceptions of events that have occurred. They might lean towards a liberal or conservative viewpoint, a Democratic or a Republican slant, while still maintaining that they are completely unbiased. So when it comes to an analysis of what transpired on January 6th, I’m not relying on media accounts of what happed. I will be looking purely at the transcript of Trump’s speech, in addition to what I saw with my own eyes on the news that day, ignoring the news commentary that coincided with the images. Even this is perhaps not unbiased, as news outlets can certainly pick and choose which video footage they choose to show. However, because I was watching in real time, I think they were more concerned about simply keeping the cameras rolling no matter whose agenda it served. What I saw was a mob of people descend upon the Capitol. The rally had become a protest, and the protest had become chaos. People scaled scaffolding, climbed walls, smashed windows, and poured into the doors of the Capitol. Once inside, there was footage of people destroying property, snapping photos of documents with their cell phones, and tearing through the hallways. This is what I saw.

Trump has been accused of inciting the riot, so it’s important to look at exactly what he said. The conclusion of his speech detailed in U.S. News & World Report, was as follows:

“As this enormous crowd shows, we have truth and justice on our side. We have a deep and enduring love for America in our hearts. We love our country. We have overwhelming pride in this great country and we have it deep in our souls. Together, we are determined to defend and preserve government of the people, by the people and for the people.

Our brightest days are before us. Our greatest achievements, still away.

I think one of our great achievements will be election security. Because nobody until I came along had any idea how corrupt our elections were. And again, most people would stand there at 9 o’clock in the evening and say I want to thank you very much, and they go off to some other life. But I said something’s wrong here, something is really wrong, can have happened.

And we fight. We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore. Our exciting adventures and boldest endeavors have not yet begun. My fellow Americans, for our movement, for our children, and for our beloved country. And I say this despite all that’s happened. The best is yet to come.

So we’re going to, we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. I love Pennsylvania Avenue. And we’re going to the Capitol, and we’re going to try and give. The Democrats are hopeless, they never vote for anything. Not even one vote. But we’re going to try and give our Republicans, the weak ones because the strong ones don’t need any of our help. We’re going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.

So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. I want to thank you all. God bless you and God Bless America. Thank you all for being here. This is incredible. Thank you very much. Thank you.”

- Donald J. Trump

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press.

Trump has been accused of making incendiary remarks, and stoking an insurrection. What exactly is an insurrection? According to the dictionary, an insurrection is “a violent uprising against an authority or government.” Based on the footage I saw, and this definition, an insurrection clearly took place. The chaos that ensued was violent, in fact several people even lost their lives. The United States government was targeted. It ticks all the boxes. But from an ethical standpoint, is insurgency, that is “an active revolt or uprising”, morally wrong? And if it is determined to be wrong, where does responsibility for the rebellion lie?

This was not the first rebellion in United States history, and it certainly will not be the last. World history is littered with examples of groups taking on their governments while using violence as a means to prove a point. Sometimes we watch in horror, but other times we root for the rebels. It appears that it boils down to whether we feel the insurgent group was justified in their actions. If a government is oppressive, that is, they project “prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control” onto the citizens they govern, then perhaps insurrection is warranted, and therefore morally justifiable.

However, is the perceived judgment of unjust action by a government enough to justify an insurrection? In the case of the January 6th rebellion, those revolting believed the government was acting in a corrupt manner by manipulating the votes of the election, and thus disregarding the will of the people. Whether the election was manipulated or not, this was their fastidious belief. Had the United States government caused them harm? Not in the sense that they were being starved or beaten or even killed for holding these beliefs, as other government regimes have done throughout the world. But they felt they were being harmed because they believed that their civil liberties were being infringed upon. They believed this to be unjust treatment by the government; and because of this, they believed their actions were justifiable.

We all perceive the world differently. No two people are exactly alike, and thus we cannot expect that people will hold identical perspectives. Rather than things being viewed as black or white, there is an entire spectrum of gray upon which we based our realities. In fact it is black and white thinking that often gets us in trouble, because with it we fail to take into account the varying perspectives of our fellow man. In order to gauge whether these insurrectionists committed a morally wrong act, we need to take a deeper look at a few different things.

First, the committal of violent acts. The rebels perceived there to be a harm against them, however there were no acts of violence being committed against them. The Electoral College did not throw the first literal punch. Even the police defending the Capitol did not appear to inflict violence upon the throngs of people breaching the building. It was the insurgents who instigated the violence, which was eventually met with retaliatory action.

Secondly, it is important to delineate between the individuals who attended Trump’s rally, and those who stormed the Capitol. According to the National Parks service, roughly 15,000 individuals were participating in rallies that morning in Washington. 15,000 people did not besiege the Capitol; only a fraction of them did. Certainly peaceful protest is a valued ideal in the United States; it’s written in our Constitution that we have freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest. The rallies could be considered to be a peaceful protest; the storming of the Capitol could not, as the presence of violence precluded it from being so.

Humans have all been blessed with the gift of free will. That is, we all choose how to act. The manner in which we behave it always a choice. And with free well comes personable responsibility. We are responsible for and need to be accountable for the choices that we make each and every day. Because not all of the rally attendants participated in the rebellion, we can infer that every individual involved had a choice in the matter. Some chose to break into the Capitol by force; many others chose to walk away.

Trump has been accused of inciting the riot based on inflammatory remarks made during his speech. He is accused of riling up the crowd, of encouraging them to overtake the Capitol by force. And yet many of them did not. Trump himself did not. Should he take responsibility for the role he played in the insurrection? From my perspective yes, because as an elected official with a great deal of power, he should be held to a high standard of decorum. With great power comes great responsibility. It is my belief that he should have had the wherewithal to know that his comments would send certain members of the crowd into a tailspin. In fact maybe he did know this, and that was his reason for doing so, which in and of itself is a problem . The line “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” surely seems in inflammatory in nature. Even if you disregard the reference to fighting, it contains the veiled threat that if these individuals did not do something, they would not have a country any more. For someone who considers them to be a staunch supporter of the United States and the ideals it was founded upon, this might trigger feelings of anxiety, fear, and a desire to take action.

At the same time, Trump did not commit a violent act himself. Nor did he hold a gun to the heads of the rally attendees and force them to commit violent acts. The insurgents who behaved in such a way acted on their own volition. And I do believe, in this case, their actions were ethically wrong. Violence was an unnecessary means to get their point across, particularly because the government itself was not violent towards them. The perceived slight over election results did not warrant the violent stance that they took. The fact that thousands of rally attendants chose not to take part in the insurrection, without any negative consequence, fully demonstrates that the insurgents had a choice in the matter. Unfortunately, several of these individuals opted to make a bad choice. And with that choice comes the need to be held accountable for their actions and to take personal responsibility for their behavior.

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