Sometimes the future is blindingly obvious and yet, it seems, when it arrives and suddenly becomes a dominating part of our present, we wonder why we hadn’t seen it coming.
Yes, life is full of surprises, some of them ugly, but often governments are unprepared for the inevitable crisis because of willful blindness, being in denial, if you will. Worse than that, sometimes senior officials in government are quite aware of a coming catastrophe but are on orders from the top to stay silent. Or stay out of it
I think it’s fair to say the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and the Congress within it shocked the nation. They and the national news media never saw it coming.
How come? How could you miss the signs detailed by our guest RAND Corporation senior adviser and scholar of terrorism Brian Michael Jenkins exactly one month before Election Day: “conspiracy theories have entered mainstream political discourse. There seem to be messaging efforts designed to delegitimize next month’s elections. The president refuses to say that he will abide by the results. One official talked on social media about buying ammunition and preparing for violence. Some pundits are warning of civil war. The nation’s anxiety is palpable and understandable.”
After Election Day, the Loser-in-Chief fed fears and angers with lies and implausible conspiracy theories. But as the defeated president’s campaign to delegitimize the result failed in court after court, the rhetoric of the president and his supporters, Giuliani, Pompeo, Cruz, Hawley became more violent week by week. In the end, all agreed the Congressional vote to approve the Electoral College’s selection of President Joe Biden was the end of the trail, the last place and time to keep Donald Trump in power.
And the online echo, of right-wing celebrities noting the date and event and threatening to leave their mark on them, was as unmissable as the digital and vocal encouragement from the president.
How did they all miss those hints, the leaders of the national intelligence services? The heads of the Capitol Police? the DCPD, the local National Guard, their bosses at the Pentagon – what were they thinking?
Their thoughts did appear to have reached an unstated consensus on two points – a pious hope that things wouldn’t get too bad, even though their own intelligence told them armed people of malign intent were on the way to Washington – and a determination to do as little to confront the right-wing rioters once they got there. The outnumbered Capital Police were set up as sacrificial canaries when the Capitol coal mine blew up.
But what’s done is done. Now the two main tasks are to understand what happened and to prevent it from happening again, because, as Brian Michael Jenkins writes, “Defiance is not easily put back in the box.” The defiance expressed at the Capitol on January 6 was, he says, “not a spasm. Violent expression has become normalized,” and “Our politics could be distorted by the vicious atmosphere for years.”
Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation and author of numerous books, reports, and articles on terrorism-related topics, including Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (2008, Prometheus Books). He formerly served as chair of the Political Science Department at RAND. On the occasion of the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, Jenkins initiated a RAND effort to take stock of America’s policy reactions and give thoughtful consideration to future strategy. That effort is presented in The Long Shadow of 9/11: America’s Response to Terrorism (Brian Michael Jenkins and John Paul Godges, eds., 2011).
Commissioned in the infantry, Jenkins became a paratrooper and a captain in the Green Berets. He is a decorated combat veteran, having served in the Seventh Special Forces Group in the Dominican Republic and with the Fifth Special Forces Group in Vietnam. He returned to Vietnam as a member of the Long Range Planning Task Group and received the Department of the Army’s highest award for his service.
In 1996, President Clinton appointed Jenkins to the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. From 1999 to 2000, he served as adviser to the National Commission on Terrorism and in 2000 was appointed to the U.S. Comptroller General’s Advisory Board. He is a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute, where he directs the continuing research on protecting surface transportation against terrorist attacks.