The Current·Q&A

U.S. Capitol riot a textbook example of 'an act of terrorism,' says expert

Bruce Hoffman has studied terrorism and insurgencies for more than 40 years. He discusses whether Trump's impeachment will inflame violence among his supporters and the risk of unrest at next week's inauguration.

Authorities will be better prepared to deal with outbursts leading up to Biden's inauguration: Bruce Hoffman

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Story Transcript

Lawmakers have debated over what to call last week's storming of the U.S. Capitol building, but extremism expert Bruce Hoffman says that the event meets the U.S. legal code and FBI definitions of terrorism.

"Whether we want to call the individuals who did it terrorism or not is immaterial — it was an act of terrorism," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump for a historic second time in response to the siege that left five people dead. The House voted 232-197 in favour of impeaching Trump.

The impeachment came a few days after the FBI warned of plans for armed protests across all 50 state capitals and in Washington, D.C., in the days leading up to president-elect Joe Biden's inauguration. 

FBI warns violence is brewing ahead of Biden’s inauguration

The National

2 months ago
2:52
The FBI warns more violence may be brewing in Washington and all state capitals as Joe Biden’s inauguration looms while experts warn those trying to remove U.S. President Donald Trump from office may be using the wrong approach. 2:52

Hoffman, who is the Shelby Cullom and Kathyrn W. Davis Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, spoke to Galloway about whether Trump's impeachment will inflame violence among his supporters and the risk of unrest at next week's inauguration.

Here is part of their conversation.

As a terrorism expert, what was going through your mind as you watched those images of the attack on the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday?

I think it was difficult for any American and American allies overseas not to be absolutely horrified that this citadel, a bastion of democracy and this enormously important institution in American history, was overrun, vandalized and damaged, and the lives of our elected representatives were threatened to the extent that they were.

There's been debate over the language that should be applied here and whether or not the people who attacked the Capitol are domestic terrorists. Is that the right language? 

Terrorism is always best defined by the nature of the act itself rather than the identity of the perpetrator or their cause. And if you look at U.S. legal code and the FBI's definition, it specifically cites violence or the threat of violence to coerce and intimidate a population or government into effect, thereby to affect policy.

By that definition, clearly what occurred at the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday was terrorism. Whether we want to call the individuals who did it terrorism or not is immaterial — it was an act of terrorism.

Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman says it was difficult for any American not to be horrified by the vandalization and overrunning of the U.S. Capitol Hill building by pro-Trump protestors. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

There have been real concerns raised about the presence of former and current members of the police and the military supporting right-wing extremists. What threat does that pose to the nation? 

We saw it on our TV screens last week. You had persons with the organizational skills, the discipline, and the command and communication abilities, wearing body armour, carrying both actual weapons or makeshift weapons or plastic ties. 

One saw the planning and the orchestration that could really have resulted in a disaster had it not been for the U.S. Capitol Police and Capitol staffers, who I think really did avert what could have been a very, very serious situation that would have been beyond the pale of one's imagination.

It's not just members of law enforcement. House Democrat Mikie Sherrill claims that she witnessed members of Congress leading groups through the Capitol in the days before the riots for what she was calling "reconnaissance." What do you make of that kind of accusation? 

Unfortunately, no surprise. We're talking about a country that is deeply divided, that is politically polarized, where in many respects, not just the rhetoric but the actual violence itself has been legitimized and justified, where people see themselves as revolutionaries, as true patriots.

But I want to caution that this is something that is the subject of an investigation. We don't know that this is for certain. But given the rhetoric, I don't think it would surprise people.

How the siege on the U.S. Capitol unfolded

The National

2 months ago
3:44
CBC News’ David Common breaks down what happened on Capitol Hill on Wednesday and how U.S. President Donald Trump stoked discontent among his supporters before he lost the election. 3:44

What does it mean if those extremists have an ally in the president of the United States? 

[Trump] has essentially weaponized these people. Certainly, President Trump's speech on the Ellipse just before his followers marched down Pennsylvania Avenue — whether he deliberately intended or not — was taken by those protesters and demonstrators as a green light to run rampant. 

We can trace this back to the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where President Trump avoided condemning the individuals and the groups that came there precisely to engage in violence. 

He leaves office in under a week, but there are many people who believe that, whether it's people in his own party or the sentiment, [political polarization] is going to hang around for a long time. How much of this continues to be fuelled by the messages that he has displayed and dispersed? 

I think the divisions in the United States and the political polarization that has divided Americans is not something that is specific to President Trump's term in office. This is something that is going to continue not just for weeks or months past president-elect [Joe] Biden's inauguration, but I would hazard to say that it's going to continue for years, if not for a decade. 

The last time America was riven with this sort of divisiveness was over the Vietnam War. There were signal political actions that could be taken; we withdrew from Indochina, we ended a universal conscription, we gave the vote to 18-year-olds. 

It's hard to see what specific legislative initiatives can be enacted that would have the same kind of calming effect. 

Hoffman says political polarization in the U.S. will continue for weeks or months past president-elect Joe Biden's inauguration. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The House voted to impeach the president on Wednesday. What would that mean for the extremists who support him? 

It's just more evidence that the system, as it were, is dedicated against them and that they have no voice.

It is that sense of disenfranchisement and disillusionment with the current system of governance in the United States that has given rise to this grassroots movement, parts of which descended on Washington, D.C. last week.

How concerned are you about what could be happening in the days ahead leading up to the inauguration? 

Unfortunately all the rhetoric from the president, and I think some of the rhetoric that we heard yesterday in the debate in the House of Representatives over impeachment, validates these people's view that the system is so rotten and so corrupt that only violence by "true patriots" can rescue the United States from this abyss. So I don't see anyone throttling back in their extremism, in their vitriol and perhaps in their commitment to violence. 

The one thing I'll say is that the authorities will certainly be far better prepared to deal with whatever occurs in Washington, D.C. or across state capitals, than they were last week. 

At the same time, that doesn't mean that there might not be repetitions — perhaps not as serious incidents of violence, but nonetheless outbursts of violence.

It's these disparate country-wide events over the next few days that ... I think will be more challenging because they're less predictable and they can move all over the cities.- Bruce Hoffman

What would you expect to see next Wednesday when Joe Biden is inaugurated as president of the United States? 

I actually think that the inauguration may pass without incident. I'm more worried in the lead-up to the inauguration. 

The inauguration is the kind of event, especially this year, that is being reimagined. It's not going to have the parade or the massive crowds or the festivities that normally attend an inauguration simply because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So it probably will be easier to police and secure than previous ones. 

It's these disparate country-wide events over the next few days that, of course, include Washington, D.C., that I think will be more challenging because they're less predictable and they can move all over the cities.


Written by Mouhamad Rachini with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Howard Goldenthal. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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