Pictures matter. Images convey truths — and falsehoods — with an emotional impact that can amplify and sometimes completely overwhelm the messages imparted by words.
Consider the photo of the guy with the buffalo-horn headdress and naked midriff standing at the House speaker’s podium in the Capitol on Jan. 6. Or the video shot of a CNN reporter standing in front of fires blazing around burnt-out cars in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last August.
Web surfers could discover that the buffalo horn-helmeted guy was always ready with an articulate line of patter, and television viewers could see the CNN chyron lamely characterizing the Kenosha protest as “fiery but mostly peaceful.”
But the pictures are what linger in the mind. The rationalizations and apologies some readily offer for these acts — the supposed stealing of the 2020 presidential election, the alleged epidemic of police shootings of unarmed black men — have nothing like the force of those pictures of wackos in the Capitol or rioters in Kenosha and other sites, including Lafayette Square in front of the White House.
These pictures of ebullient violence in symbolic civic space will have reverberations in politics and public life for years to come.
The Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol failed to achieve its apparent goal: preventing the announcement of the Electoral College votes making Joe Biden the 46th president. But that action, following then-President Donald Trump’s speech to a crowd he summoned to the Ellipse, led to his impeachment by the House. That was not without justification: His words, as I wrote days later, “were uttered with a reckless disregard for the possibility they’d provoke violence that any reasonable person could find impeachable.”
They have also led to the construction of an ugly fence around the Capitol complex and the continued mobilization of thousands of National Guard troops — a perhaps-permanent militarization of our capital city.
We still need an explanation for why there were too few law enforcement and military personnel deployed to protect the Capitol on Jan. 6. Now there appear to be more than necessary. The sight of the Capitol fenced off from the petitioning and touristic public is not a happy picture.
Neither is life on many streets in America’s large cities, particularly in the mostly black neighborhoods. And it hasn’t been a happy picture since the video of the death of George Floyd on May 25 prompted multiple and extended “mostly peaceful” protests across the nation — and not just protests but murders.
With major police departments defunded, as Black Lives Matter spokesmen demanded, and with police officers avoiding the “hot spots” where intensive policing had astonishingly cut violent crime since the mid-1990s, murders skyrocketed from 2019 to 2020 — up 31%, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
Academics placed some blame on the COVID-19 lockdowns, but there was no perceptible increase until Memorial Day weekend. And it’s not just a minor blip; the previous high percentage increase in murders, in 1968, was just 13%.
Multiple increases of that magnitude resulted in the national violent crime rate almost tripling from 1965 to 1976. As a law student, I worked in the mayor’s office in Detroit during the 1967 riot, and I can tell you what happens to major cities with sustained increases in violent crime: Very large parts of them are destroyed. That’s what I fear could happen again.
It’s all the more likely if liberal mayors and their cheerleaders in the press act as many did during the “mostly peaceful” BLM protests. Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser tweeted that it was “shameful” for federal police to use force to clear Lafayette Square on June 1. Those overrunning it tried to topple the statue of Andrew Jackson and started a fire in St. John’s Church, “the presidents’ church,” just to the north. That civic space was violated just as the Capitol was on Jan. 6.
Two days later, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton argued in The New York Times for sending the National Guard and federal troops into cities where rioting got out of hand, as was often done from 1967 in Detroit to 1992 in Los Angeles. That common-sense suggestion sent young Times journalists into tears, and they demanded — and got — the firing of editorial page editor James Bennet.
It’s easy to make fun of the double standard here, with Bowser decrying the active duty military being “used on American streets against Americans” in June and having no problem with it in January. Or with then-President Trump decrying rioters in June and spurring them on in January. But I fear we’re in for more unhappy pictures in the years ahead.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.
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