Some of the defendants facing charges in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol deserve points for creativity. Among the defense arguments emerging in court documents: “I got caught up in the mob” and “Trump told me to do it.” But the “mob” and the individuals charged in the insurrection are one and the same, and breaking the law just because you think a higher authority with a well-known penchant for dangerous rhetoric said you could doesn’t make it right. The attempt to brush aside criminal behavior with such lame excuses turns the concept of personal responsibility on its head.
The images from that day are already infamous: crowds tearing down police barriers outside the Capitol complex and sparring with outnumbered officers; jubilant rioters live-streaming and taking selfies inside the building; a man with his feet propped up on the desk in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. Many Americans watched the mob on television, stunned at the sight of a hallowed institution of our democracy being overrun by thugs.
Now they want us to believe they just got swept up in the moment. A Texas man accused of helping break a glass door in the House chamber now says he never planned to storm the building. Yet authorities say he did — and ended up inside with a yellow flag around his neck that said “Don’t Tread on Me.” Another defendant from Chicago says he only went to Washington that day to attend the rally where then-President Donald Trump fired up the crowd with false claims about a stolen election. According to the FBI, Kevin James Lyons claimed there was little he could do to escape the crowd because he weighs only 140 pounds. Apparently it will be left to a jury to make sense of how the disadvantage of his bodyweight led him to post a photo on social media captioned, “WHOS HOUSE?!?!? OUR HOUSE??”
Other defendants facing charges from Jan. 6 are invoking what’s known as a public authority defense — in essence, Trump gave them permission to do what they did. One defendant, a Marine named Dominic Pezzola, said he was following his commander-in-chief’s orders that day, and now feels betrayed by Trump. While a public authority defense is not likely to work at trial, it’s a sobering reminder of the sway Trump holds over many of his followers, who take his words literally, no matter how reckless.
Now imagine the hair-on-fire reaction among conservative commentators if protesters in Minneapolis accused of vandalism had tried to make the “caught up in the mob” argument. Or if the millions of people who took to the streets across the country in support of racial justice following George Floyd’s death last year said they were overcome by the moment? Republicans in three dozen states including Florida responded to those demonstrations with heavy-handed legislation billed as “anti riot.” When a civil rights protest turns violent, will Gov. Ron DeSantis accept the argument that the perpetrators just got caught up in the moment?
Hardly. And no one who stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory can blame anyone but themselves for the legal consequences they now face. The idea that a mob made them do it or that they’re not responsible because of Trump’s wild claims is laughable. And their violent attempt to subvert our democracy was deadly serious.
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