The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The gears of justice can grind down the forces of insurrection

Attorney General Merrick Garland. (Leigh Vogel/Pool via Reuters/File)
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As the anniversary of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol approaches, there’s an overriding question for Americans who support the rule of law: Has this extremist insurrection been contained, or is it spreading?

The searing answer is that we don’t know. To many, democracy seems under threat more than ever. Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen 2020 election are supported by a majority of his party, a survey this month shows. A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found that 1 in 3 Americans believe violence against the government can sometimes be justified.

But the fight to save our democracy is gathering strength — and some of the most important combatants are largely invisible. For the past year, the Justice Department and FBI have been conducting a nationwide campaign to identify and prosecute the extremists who invaded the Capitol. It doesn’t get the headlines it should, but this law enforcement effort is unprecedented — and it’s the country’s best hope for restoring the rule of law peacefully.

Some statistics have been well-publicized: 725 people have been arrested for crimes associated with the Jan. 6 insurrection, and 165 have pleaded guilty to federal charges. More important, investigations of extremists linked to Jan. 6 are underway in all 56 FBI field office around the country, and prosecutions are being prepared by nearly every U.S. attorney’s office. Justice Department officials say there has never been a dragnet of this scope — not against the Mafia, international terrorism or any other threat.

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Attorney General Merrick Garland will describe this countrywide effort in a speech Wednesday, and the FBI will urge Americans to help find 350 suspects who were photographed on Jan. 6 but haven’t yet been arrested, including 250 who are believed to have assaulted police officers. Garland and other officials will provide telephone numbers and websites where people can share tips.

Take a look at the FBI’s online photo catalogue of suspects, and you can see the faces of this insurgency. Virtually all appear to be White, and nearly all are men (I found just four women among several hundred photos). They look like a rowdy crowd at a football game, wearing MAGA hats and ski caps, many sporting beards and goatees, some cloaked by wraparound shades or masks. In nearly every face, you can see a glint of anger.

Restoring order is a slow, painful process in countries where violent extremists have challenged the state. Look at the drug cartels that took control of Colombia, Mexico and other nations. Police and military forces struggled to maintain the rule of law, though not always successfully. Criminal gangs in Russia are so powerful that even President Vladimir Putin can’t fully control them. Insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan couldn’t be quelled by all of the U.S. military might.

When we think about the Justice Department’s battle in that way — as a counterinsurgency — we realize the dangers of overly zealous tactics. The federal government shouldn’t be so aggressive in its pursuit that it creates more insurgents than it arrests. That’s the fine line that Garland and the FBI are trying to walk in combating domestic extremism in a country that’s so sharply split on political issues.

Garland was asked in October by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer whether his investigation was targeting “foot soldiers” rather than those who organized the insurrection. His answer defined the constitutional middle ground where Garland wants law enforcement to operate: “I am quite aware that there are people who are criticizing us for not prosecuting sufficiently, and others who are complaining that we are prosecuting too harshly. This is … part of the territory for any prosecutor in any case.”

America has faced domestic threats before. What seems to work best is the slow, steady application of the state’s unique powers. The Justice Department disclosed last year that it had used facial recognition technology to identify at least one target; the FBI is also using other aggressive tools that are legally available, including informants, cellphone records and social media information.

These techniques, though intrusive, effectively disrupt their targets. Muslim extremists in the United States were crippled by FBI stings, telephone intercepts and informants. Mafia dons began to fear that every phone call might be overheard and every contact photographed. Over time, the balance of intimidation shifted, and the threats were controlled.

Let’s go back to those 250 FBI photographs of unidentified suspects who allegedly attacked police. Americans should mark the grim anniversary of Jan. 6 by taking a close look at that mug book and, if they feel a jolt of recognition, asking themselves if they’re comfortable sheltering people who attack cops.

A year after the appalling violence at the Capitol, too many perpetrators are still walking free — and most of the top organizers haven’t been touched. Now this investigation needs to move into a higher gear, and bring everyone who attacked our democracy to justice.