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Friday, January 8, 2021 Leer en Español

US Capitol Attack a Reminder of the Perils of Using Violence in the Name of Fighting Injustice

The percentage of US adults who say violence is a justifiable means to advance political change has surged in recent years, among both Democrats and Republicans. This should be troubling to all Americans.

Image Credit: Flickr-Blink O'fanaye | CC BY NA 2.0 (

Ashli Elizabeth Babbitt served in four tours of duty during her 14-year US Air Force enlistment. A high-level security official, she survived some of the deadliest war zones in the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

Her life came to an abrupt end on Wednesday, not in a foreign country but in the US Capitol, where she was shot and killed by a plainclothes Capitol police officer after she and other rioters sought to breach a barricade in the building.

“I’m numb. I’m devastated. Nobody from DC notified my son and we found out on TV,” Babbitt’s mother-in-law told the New York Post.

Babbitt was one of five people who died during the violence, three others from medical complications including several heart attacks and one police officer who died from injuries inflicted by rioters. The riots, which come on the heels of the most violent summer in American since the 1960s, sought to disrupt Congress’s vote to certify the Electoral College’s vote for Joe Biden as president.

For months, President Trump and many of his supporters claimed Joe Biden’s electoral college victory was illegitimate because of systemic voter fraud, a claim disputed by the Justice Department and multiple Republican state officials in the states where said fraud allegedly took place.

“This is total fraud,” Trump told Fox News following the election. “And how the FBI and Department of Justice — I don’t know, maybe they’re involved. But how people are allowed to get away with this stuff is unbelievable.”

In the days leading up to Congress’s January 6 certification vote, thousands of aggrieved supporters of Trump poured into the nation’s capital believing, as does the president himself, that widespread voter fraud and irregularities mean the November presidential election was “stolen.”

Things quickly spiraled out of control.

“The U.S. Capitol has been locked down after pro-Trump protesters broke into the building following an incendiary speech from the president in which he vowed never to concede defeat and called on his supporters to march on Congress,” the Washington Examiner reported amid the chaos. “After the defiant speech, thousands of rallygoers who had arrived in Washington to contest the results of the presidential election swarmed the outside of the Capitol, breaking past U.S. Capitol Police and metal fencing.”

“The Senate and House were adjourned, with leaders rushed off the floor by their security details as the groups breached several layers of security and gained access to the Capitol chambers,” the report continued. “At least one person is in critical condition after being shot during the chaos, while at least another five people have been transported to hospital.”

Among them was Babbitt, a 35-year old woman from San Diego who ran a swimming pool supply store in Spring Valley. A self-described patriot, she was determined to be on hand to support her country and “stop the steal.”

“Nothing will stop us,” Babbitt tweeted on January 5. “[T]hey can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours….dark to light.”

Twenty four hours later she was dead and the capital city was left scarred by violence. 

There is no question that this loss of life is a tragedy. And we will leave aside the question of whether Babbitt’s killing was an excessive use of force. What we seek to answer is whether the siege of the Capitol that led to her death was a just political act, or whether her life was wasted in a misadventure that was foolish and wrong.

Sadly, the latter is the case.

Of Protests and Riots

The right to peaceful protest is a cornerstone of American society. The license to engage in violence, vandalism, and intimidation is not.

Once political protest descends into violence, it crosses the line of justice.

The extent to which voter fraud played a role in the 2020 election can be debated, like any other subject. Trump and his supporters are entitled to believe the presidential election was “stolen” and “rigged.” (We do not share this belief, and as noted earlier, neither does the Department of Justice, which said “we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”)

Moreover, Trump supporters have every right to gather in Washington and protest the election results. This is a simple matter of free speech and assembly, both of which are protected under the Constitution. But a faction went much further than that Wednesday, perpetrating vandalism, property destruction, and trespass, as can be seen in these videos:

Political protest loses moral and constitutional legitimacy as soon as it becomes destructive or violent.

All Americans have the right to speak out and make our case in the public square. But the moment the first brick is thrown or a window is smashed, it crosses the line between exercising rights and violating the rights of others.

Is Violence Permissible in the Face of Injustice?

Some would counter that in the face of what they consider a stolen election and an America where their rights and freedoms are slipping away, violent unrest is justified by the extremity of the situation we face as a country.

A scan of Babbit’s Twitter feed reveals such concerns. From social media censorship, to compulsory lockdowns, businesses gone bankrupt or looted, political corruption, and voter fraud allegations, there’s a powerful and understandable sense of grievance—and it’s a feeling gripping millions of Americans. Of injustice and oppression. Of the belief that everyday citizens are being trampled by political elites.

Underlying rioters’ rage is a sense of powerlessness; an absence of control or agency. These are conditions from which violence tends to spring.

“To sum up: politically speaking, it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt once observed. “Power and violence are opposites.”

To be powerless in the face of injustice, in other words, is in many ways a recipe for violence.

It invites an important question. Can violence be used to set the world right? Injustice is very real, after all. It’s something almost everyone has experienced at one time or another, albeit it to greatly varying extents. If violence can be used as a means to make things better, why should it not be employed in such a fashion?

This is not a new question, of course. And while Americans today, including many academics, increasingly see violence as a justifiable tool for political change, the answer to this age-old question is still a resounding no.

“Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. artfully noted.

King’s words appear especially true in the dawn of 2021.

For the better part of a year, Americans have watched violence spread across our country, feeding on itself like some other-worldly organism. George Floyd’s death, captured by jarring images and moving video, naturally shook Americans. But what did the riots that ensued accomplish beyond at least 19 direct deaths and billions of dollars in property damage? They only sabotaged the police reform movement and led to more violence. More riots followed, devouring cities from Atlanta to Kenosha, Wisconsin, and beyond. Homicides also surged, increasing by 250 percent in some US cities.

There’s no denying that the riots brought additional attention to the issue of police brutality, but at what cost? Moreover, MLK reminds us that these victories are likely to be fleeting.

“In spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace,” the civil rights icon said. “It solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”

King was exactly right. Unfortunately, the percentage of US adults who say violence is a justifiable means to advance political change has surged in recent years, among both Democrats and Republicans.

If Americans make excuses for or engage in violent agitation when it’s a cause they support, it becomes ever more likely they’ll soon have the same behavior imposed upon them by their opponents.

Actions that undermine our natural rights can never advance progress.

Violence Is Not the Answer to Injustice

To argue that violence is a justifiable means to confront injustice is to inevitably invite perpetual conflict. We live in a world of scarcity, but the one thing there has never been a shortage of is injustice. It’s a bitter pill we all have tasted and experienced, to varying degrees.

This was especially true in 2020, a year of racial unrest, sweeping violence, and government overreach in which millions of Americans were ordered confined to their homes. Many saw their jobs, savings, and businesses evaporate before their eyes while lawmakers and corporations exempted themselves.

Injustice is real.

Just ask the family of Andre Maurice Hill, a 47-year-old unarmed black man who last month was killed in a garage by Ohio police responding to a non-emergency call. Hill, who was holding a phone, was shot by police within 10 seconds. Officers reportedly made no effort to save Hill, who residents described as an “expected guest,” and he soon bled out.

“From what we can see, none of the officers initially at the scene provide[d] medical assistance to Mr. Hill,” Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther said. “No compression on the wounds to stop the bleeding. No attempts at CPR. Not even a hand on the shoulder and an encouraging word that medics were en route.”

Is this injustice? Most certainly. But violence is not the solution to injustice, though many have a hard time believing this.

“You truly really believe that non-violence is the sole and universal answer to injustice and oppression?” an interviewer once asked King.

“Very definitely,” King responded. “I feel that non-violence…organized non-violent resistance is the most powerful weapon that oppressed people can use in breaking aloof from the bondage of oppression.”

King was not saying injustice should be accepted or confused with cowardice or inaction.

“Non-violent resistance does resist,” King noted. “It is dynamically active. It is passive physically but it is strongly active spiritually.”

Condemning All Violence

The scene witnessed at the nation’s capital Wednesday was sad. It was also intolerable. All Americans—even those who support President Trump and agree with his election claims—should condemn it.

In particular, conservatives and libertarians who criticized the Black Lives Matter riots in 2020, as we did, must similarly condemn the political violence in the nation’s capital. There is no coherent moral framework where the destruction of property and violence carried out in the name of racial justice is wrong, but similar violence of a right-wing persuasion is fine. (Or vice versa.)

They’re both wrong. Always—yes, even in the presence of injustice (both real and perceived). Because violence is a monster that grows the more it is fed.

And sadly, it’s the most powerless who usually pay the price when it does.

  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of at the Foundation for Economic Education.
  • Brad Polumbo (@Brad_Polumbo) is a libertarian-conservative journalist and the co-founder of BASEDPolitics. He was Policy Correspondent at FEE from 2020 to 2022.