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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Don't downplay the rioters' violence

Supporters of President Donald Trump fight police at

Supporters of President Donald Trump fight police at the entrance to the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6. Credit: TNS/Jessica Griffin

It has been three months since a crowd of Donald Trump supporters invaded Capitol Hill while a joint session of Congress was counting the Electoral College votes in order to formally certify Joe Biden’s victory. Not surprisingly in a polarized country, competing narratives of the events of Jan. 6 have sprung up, with not only pro-Trump conservatives but some maverick, anti-establishment progressives questioning the standard account of a dangerous anti-democracy insurrection.

Do the dissidents have a point, or are they simply lost in the propaganda fog?

Trump, who was barely willing to condemn his rioting fans back in January — and whose actions that day earned him a second impeachment — is now leading the revisionists. Late last month on the Laura Ingraham show on Fox News, he asserted that the crowd posed "zero threat," that some of the people who went in "were waved in" and were "hugging and kissing the police and the guards."

Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald, an independent progressive journalist and lawyer harshly critical of both Republican and Democratic establishment politics, has argued that while the crowd’s actions can be defined as a "riot," claims of a "violent insurrection" are baseless and are being used to expand government powers.

Greenwald has made a number of dubious statements — for instance, that it’s wrong to depict the riot as a "violent insurrection" because the rioters did not use guns. (Beating police officers with flagpoles seems bad enough.) But some of his criticisms of the media coverage are valid.

Far too many journalists and pundits seized on initial reports that Officer Brian Sicknick — the only casualty who was not part of the pro-Trump crowd — was bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher. Early reports that he was "struck with a fire extinguisher" turned into more dramatic claims of a bloody gash in his head. Only last month was it revealed that Sicknick suffered no blunt force injuries and that the exact cause of his death remains unknown. (It may have been noxious chemicals sprayed in his face.)

Other widely reported claims — for instance, that the rioters intended to capture and perhaps assassinate members of Congress — have also been walked back by federal law enforcement. The infamous photo of a rioter holding plastic handcuffs inside the Senate chamber does not, as some have argued, provide evidence of such plans: according to a prosecutors' memorandum in federal court in support of pretrial detention for Eric Munchel, he picked them up from a table inside the building after breaking in.

Ironically, Trumpian claims that the rioters were practically having a lovefest with cops and guards are also based partly on initial misreporting by progressive journalists, who were intent on making a point about police favoritism toward white, right-wing protesters. (In reality, it seems that guards at one entrance waved in protesters when there was no chance of holding them back.)

The revisionists — Trumpists and contrarian leftists alike — push a false narrative when they downplay the rioters’ violence, which resulted in some 140 police officers being hurt, or dismiss claims of an attack on democracy. The rioters’ intent was to overturn the legitimate results of an election; "insurrection" is not especially hyperbolic. But sloppiness and hyperbole by the mainstream media have unquestionably contributed to the fog.

Cathy Young is a contributor to Reason magazine.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this column misstated the timeframe since the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

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