Until last Wednesday I was under the happy delusion that I was the most politically incorrect asshole on the planet. I now have to accept that I’ve been bested. For there, in the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, and for all the world to see, was a man proudly wearing a T-shirt that read, Camp Auschwitz, and underneath it, 6MWE, which I’m told stands for Six Million Wasn’t Enough. I can only stand in awe!
I’m not sure this is what was intended by the First Amendment, but apparently the American courts have decided it is. But for the rest of us, where exactly is the line between expression and incitement?
Needless to say context is everything. I’ve advocated the genocide of the Scots, “because of the haggis,” I explain. But obviously no one takes me seriously. 6MWE is intended to be taken seriously, but the shirt doesn’t add, “So let’s finish the job!” And even if it did, no one thinks these people have the means to do what they advocate. On the other hand, some argue, had the Weimar Republic cracked down on the Nazis early enough … It’s a hard judgment call, isn’t it? If we crack down too early we run the risk of exacerbating the disaffection. If we don’t we leave it to its own devices. Good statesmanship is getting the timing just right.
There’s been a lot of punditry that, had it been blacks rather than whites charging up those steps, there’d have been a massacre. I suspect that’s true. But I want to consider a different scenario. What if those steps had been adequately protected, and the mob, confident it wouldn’t be fired upon, had charged anyhow. Suppose they were wrong. What would have been the political fallout of a hundred dead white ‘protesters’? As it currently stands the media is bleating for the one police officer who was killed that afternoon. But had there been a massacre, I’m guessing public outrage would have shifted 180 degrees. It would have been America’s Tiananmen Square.
So one interpretation – the most charitable one, I think – is that those charged with protecting the Capitol knew this, and restrained themselves accordingly. If that was the case, then, much to Trump’s disappointment, law enforcement did the right thing. The same logic applies to just how draconian the authorities should be vis a vis the rioters after the fact. Under-reacting and over-reacting might have the same autonomous effect. Here too, good statesmanship is getting it just right.
And the same applies, ceteris paribus, to going after Trump. Doing nothing rewards incitement. Charging him turns him into a martyr. I side with doing nothing, but only because Americans have such a short memory.
All the hype notwithstanding, this attack on the Capitol was not the greatest challenge to American democracy. The greatest threat to any democracy is the deterioration of the conditions for civility. If one wants to make America great again, rendering it less illegal as unthinkable to sport that T-shirt might be a good place to start.