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The horror of what might have been in the Capitol siege, and what lies ahead

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There was a stark contrast on display at the Capitol on Wednesday. You could see couples strolling on the balcony of the grand building while taking selfies and calling their friends to boast about their adventure. At the same time, inside the building, men in camouflage were wandering the halls of the Senate chamber with zip ties, searching for politicians.

Such is the rainbow coalition that Donald Trump has built through his efforts to hold on to power. His campaign of lies about the presidential election has brought together paranoid citizens from all walks of life. They are all united in the same illusion that a great crime has been perpetrated against them.

Five people lost their lives in the violence that was borne from those lies. Their deaths were an unbearable tragedy and a stain on the Trump movement. But it is worth pausing to consider how much worse it could have been, and could still be.

I followed the mob as it went on its rampage on Wednesday. When Donald Trump stepped on stage I was not focused on him, but on the crowd before him. I watched them closely as they listened to his lie-fuelled rant and began to march to the Capitol. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment when things took a decisive turn for the worst, but by the time perimeter had been breached the ugliness had taken over.

There were calls for gallows. There were calls for blood. There were specific calls for violence against Nancy Pelosi, journalists, traitors and politicians inside. These words have power all on their own, but they are exponentially more dangerous when they are screamed by men with the means and opportunity to act on them.

As dark as those moments were, the true scale of the violence inside the Capitol was not immediately known. It was lost in the frenzy and the symbolism of the moment, and filtered out over the coming days.

We learned the day after the attack that police officer Brian D. Sicknick died from injuries he sustained while “physically engaging” with president’s supporters, according to Capitol Police.

During that time, images emerged of one of the protesters carrying zip ties in the Senate chamber — a clear sign that some in the mob had more sinister intentions than simply occupying the building.

 

Jim Bourg, a Reuters journalist, said he heard “at least three different rioters at the Capitol say that they hoped to find Vice President Mike Pence and execute him by hanging him from a Capitol Hill tree as a traitor”.

The president had attacked Mr Pence, one of his most loyal allies, just as the crowds were surrounding the Capitol. “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!” he wrote.

They were searching for Pelosi. They were searching for Chuck Schumer. How close did they come to finding them? What would have happened if they had broken through a few minutes sooner? They did not bring the zip ties for nothing.

We know how close House Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat, came to a violent attack because it was on camera. In a chaotic scene at the entrance to the speaker’s lobby,  the video shows a group trying to break down a door to reach the lawmakers just metres away on the other side – Mr Maloney among them.  Three police officers guarding that door are seen leaving their posts before the shot rings out. One of the people trying to enter, Ashli Babbitt, was killed. She was later identified as a believer in the QAnon conspiracy theory that the world is run by paedophiles and Mr Trump is trying to bring them to justice.

As gangs ran through the hallways looking for victims, a New York Times photographer was accosted by the rioters. She was threatened and her equipment destroyed. “People just watched. At this point, I thought I could be killed and no one would stop them,” she said afterwards.

A photographer with the Associated Press narrowly escaped a lynching outside on the Capitol steps when someone in the crowd decided he was a member of Antifa.

Later, police discovered molotov cocktails in a truck near the Capitol building, and the placing of pipe bombs at the RNC and DNC headquarters both.

Then there were the many Confederate flags flying in the Capitol. The T-shirts with the words “hang the media”.

And still, in the midst of all this, the happy and smiling MAGA tourists along for the ride. If they weren’t directly involved in the violence, they cheered it. As lawmakers were desperately seeking shelter, in fear for their lives, they were posting it all to Instagram.

What does this tell us about the mob? How do you explain why retirees from Florida were happy to walk among the militiamen who were calling for blood in the heart of American democracy? How do you explain not just the violent few, but those thousands who formed orderly queues behind them, who patiently waited for their turn to enter while police were beaten aside with metal poles.

It is precisely the diversity of those who took part in the attack, and those who condoned it, which makes it so dangerous. And if this was mob mentality, then the mob was formed long before that day, and its members have had plenty of opportunity to reconsider their involvement.

A poll taken after the riot found that 45 per cent of Republicans supported the storming of the Capitol building. More than 70 per cent believe the election was fraudulent, despite all of Trump’s legal efforts failing due to a lack of evidence.

The day after the siege, I walked down to the Capitol building to survey the damage. Police had erected a seven-foot high fence around the building. In front of it, a few small groups gathered to share stories from the day before.

I saw a family of Trump supporters taking pictures, laughing and smiling, in front of the building where five people had died. The disconnect between the violence of the day before and their own experience, their own feelings, was astounding.

But then, these are people who have become entirely disconnected from reality. I have attended a number of Trump rallies and events across the country and spoken with dozens of his supporters. In the time I spent interviewing people on Wednesday morning and afterwards as I walked among them, I have never heard so many deranged conspiracy theories and fascist language.

Nearly all of them believe China has paid off Republican and Democratic officials to rig the election, that they all conspired together across state lines. A great deal of them believe those same officials are paedophiles.

When reporting on a terrorist attack of a US national, often the first question reporters ask is where were they radicalised? The question is so common that it has become a trope in terrorism reporting. But no one had to ask that question this time.

The president may not have indulged in all of these conspiracy theories and derangements, but he flooded the zone with so many lies that the truth became an abstract concept. He created an alternate reality for his followers in which he won the election and their country was being stolen from them. Is it any wonder people are resorting to violence after hearing such incendiary lies from their president?

Trump brought this mass movement of the paranoid out from the darkness and into the mainstream, and the Republican Party went along with him by entertaining this election fraud lie for their own political gain.

The irony is that his supporters don’t seem to realise that he doesn’t care for them at all. When he stood on the podium outside of the White House on Wednesday and asked them to march on the Capitol, he said he would go with them. Of course he didn’t. They are dispensable to him.

The danger is now bigger than Trump. Even if he wanted to put the genie back in the bottle now it’s unlikely that he could. There is already talk of the same band of conspiracy theorists returning to carry out violence at Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Already, some Republicans have called for the country to move on, to repair and rebuild. But the sad truth is that Trump’s movement has proved itself accepting of violence and of the white nationalists, QAnon soldiers and other fringe figures who carry it out.

They took pictures with them. They cheered for them. And they are not sorry.

The horror of what might have been in the Capitol siege, and what lies ahead

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