U.S. Capitol events: Lessons for European security –  by Maria Chr. Alvanou

The storming of the Capitol has left Americans and the whole world in shock.  Political analysts try to explain the severity of what took place and how it impacts democracy. However, there are points and lessons also regarding security, that can be of interest to Europeans. The following are examples.

  1. Call it and prosecute it for what it is.

Many researchers for years now try to highlight that although violent activities of Islamists are automatically named and prosecuted as terrorism, the same does not apply when perpetrators belong to the far-right. The Capitol violence can easily fall under the FBI definition about domestic terrorism: “Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”[1] It can easily fall also under the definition of terrorism in EU countries, as terrorist aim was present (some of the terrorist aims are: unduly compelling a government to perform or abstain from performing any act, as well as seriously destabilizing or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country[2]). So why the hesitation to call what took place exactly what it was? It was an act of domestic terrorism. Is violence less dangerous for democracy if it is perpetrated by the far-right? Are attacks terrorism and a threat to democracy only when they are carried out by Islamists?

We have already had in Europe German protesters (against COVID-19 measures) attempting to storm into the Reichstag[3] and rightly so after what happened in the U.S., German authorities are trying to toughen Bundestag security measures[4]. Can we risk in European countries citizens storming parliaments, taking the law in their own hands? The point is not if the lockdown measures enforced in European countries are right or wrong (or even if the U.S. elections were won fair and square); the point that in democratic countries there are institutions and legal mechanisms for citizens to make use of, if they want to react against decisions of the state, contest and control their legality. There is no room for violence and its perpetrators must face the consequences of law without discrimination.

  1. Deconstruction of extreme rhetoric and conspiracy theories.

During the Capitol storming the operational role of social media communication has proved to be essential. It became evident that crowds can be guided under social media influence and stopping the venue of communication is a way to prevent/stop the escalation of violence. Of course, in critical times of a violent operation erupting, shutting the social media venues of leaders/persons who can influence towards escalation is common logic. Yet, in general, putting obstacles to freedom of expression can backfire. Populism and conspiracy theories will just get “glorified”, perceived as persecuted by the system and become more attractive to those individuals who tend to believe there is a superpower controlling the world, the lives, and minds of people. What we need is deconstruction of conspiracy and hate theories before people get out on the streets and become violent.

In EU, the one-hour rule and removing terrorist content online strategy[5] can be promising, only if they are combined with investing in systematic deconstruction of problematic content, with evidence, transparency, and clarity. Additionally, experts who carry out the task, should be addressing online audience without appearing like the “elite” talking down to “uneducated” crowds, marginalizing them. People need to understand and to do so, they first need to listen. Well, they listen when they are approached with respect, when they feel the message comes through communication and not through “teaching” and paternalizing modes. Otherwise, they will continue to be the pray of far-right, Islamist etc. radicalization to violence.

  1. Policing gaps.

One of the issues that has emerged is the relevant easy way security seems to have been breached. Was it a matter of gaps in operational security? Did the authorities omit to take seriously the possibility of storming the Capitol? The security sector should always be able to recognize new emerging threats and everyone in the world has been watching the dynamic of things after U.S. elections. Moreover, last year armed protesters against the lockdown measures stormed the Michigan capitol[6]. There is a serious question to be posed: Was racial bias obstructing authorities to effectively react? If a mob is of African Americans and other racial groups, or if it is connected to- what many would describe as- the “left”, is it conceived as more dangerous and then authorities deploy their forces in a more serious and effective way?  Why was this crowd allowed to reach Capitol in the first place?

After what happened, how seriously authorities take certain threats and how ready they are to act, are both capacities to be assessed. European counterterrorism authorities should also look to how their risk assessment and profiling (based on the danger from jihadi terrorism and anarchist/antiestablishment extremism) could crate gaps in security.

The Capitol storming will be remembered as a day of infamy, not just in the U.S., as we cannot pretend in Europe that it does not touch us, and it is irrelevant. Financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, migration, are situations that have caused tension in our societies too. Conspiracy theories, hate speech, conflict and scape goats are present in Europe. In social media we can see how individuals or groups express their disbelief towards politicians, political parties, institutions, how they attack certain fragments of the population. The language used is often offensive and threatening and “violence is in the air”. In a world of globalization and so many problems emerging constantly, a European copycat of the Capitol violence unfortunately cannot be ruled out. So, we must take our lessons and be proactive.

[1] https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/terrorism

[2] https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=LEGISSUM:4322328&from=EN

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/31/world/europe/reichstag-germany-neonazi-coronavirus.html

[4] https://www.dw.com/en/germany-reviews-parliament-security-after-us-capitol-riot/a-56161097

[5] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_2372

[6] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52496514