Responsibility for Rioting: Can those Complicit Cast Blame?

by Robyn Repko Waller

Photo by Cameron Smith on Unsplash

Wednesday’s riots at the Capitol shook many Americans and, indeed, individuals around the globe. Screens worldwide glared with shocking and impactful images of some Trump supporters breaching Capitol police barricades and scaling the Capitol walls to loot and overrun the halls and private chambers in an attempt at undermining the ceremonial certification of President Elect Joe Biden’s win. Confederate flags were flown. Lives were lost in the chaos.

The response from many onlookers, both in person and from afar: outrage. Outrage at the harmful undermining of democracy. Outrage at the intent to harm and plunder. Outrage at those who have sown the seeds of false information and stirred the boiling frustration of pockets of MAGA nation. Outrage at the hands-off treatment of those rioting — in striking comparison to the reception of BLM protesters in DC. Sustained and exhausted outrage at an outgoing President who has actively stoked the fires of insurrection and chaos, even while the riots unfolded. 

Plenty has been said in the aftermath of this event about who is to blame — not just legally, but morally speaking — for the physical and symbolic destruction of our democracy. I won’t spend much time on that here. I’ll also leave aside too the imperative discussion of false information as a driving source of polarized political groups, radicalization of American citizens, and, ultimately, the ensuing riots. There’s no doubt that false and misleading information contributed to the actions of the swarm of rioters at the Capitol that day. And, of course, misinformation withstanding, the voluntarily taken actions of those rioters were wrong. They are, in the eyes of onlookers, to be held accountable, morally and legally. So too, should those implicated who are in power, many are demanding. 

The question that interests me here, rather, has to do with those who cast moral blame. Those who are outraged. Assuming these rioters and instigators have done something egregiously wrong and are blameworthy for their actions, who gets to blame them? That is, who has standing to blame (as it’s termed in the philosophical literature)?

This may sound at first like a strange question. If someone has committed a severe offense, morally speaking, can’t we all blame them? (Admittedly, I often intuitively feel this way about many examples of wrongdoing.) What is fascinating, though, about the outcry following the violence at the Capitol is that the public seems adamant that indeed some individuals cannot legitimately express outrage at the rioters. Here I am talking about the vitriol directed at those individuals in power and those legislators who are implicated in the false narratives of a stolen election and encouraged overturning the election results. That vitriol is palpable. Folks in every media, from print to Twitter to Facebook to cable news, are reeling and seething with anger. Justifiably so. There are calls for resignation of representatives. Promises that these legislators, those who objected to the election certification, will become pariahs in their own political party. Others have been deplatformed, although the news of the permanent suspension of President Trump’s social media accounts wasn’t entirely surprising. 

But some of the most passionate expressions of outrage are targeted at those who had a hand in the events leading to the riots but have condemned the violence nonetheless. The image of Senator Hawley enthusiastically pumping his fist in support of the crowd outside the Capitol remains seared in the public memory, even if it is now erased from his Twitter feed. And while he took to Twitter to condemn the riot in progress, his objection to certifying the election results was not taken lightly. The calls for resignation and quickly pulled book contract loudly registers the disapprobation of a strong contingent of the citizenry. 

Curiously, others who were prominent figures in the movement to block decertification in the days leading to the riot were spared this harsh treatment. One of the most striking examples was the (seldomly awarded in the Senate) round of applause for Senator Kelly Loeffler in the chamber following her statement that she could not now “in good conscience” object to the certification despite her earlier intention to object to the Georgia results. She had, in days prior, been a prominent voice in the objection camp. The run-off election between Senator Loeffler and Raphael Warnock had been called in her opponent’s favor a few hours prior. Others, including Senator James Lankford, too voted to certify despite earlier plans to object. 

What, then, is the explanation of the difference in moral reaction to those two groups? Both played a role, even if briefly, in hyping the atmosphere and events that culminated in the riots at the Capitol. After all, even if these individuals somehow did not foresee that such election-undermining talk would trigger the fermenting tide of anger in the country, it seems that one ought to have. Both groups, as elected representatives in the national public eye, had a powerful platform to influence the attitudes of their constituents. In this respect, one might suspect that neither has a standing to be outraged at the rioters. But their juxtaposed reception post-riot does not bear this out, at least according to many in the public. 

Rather, then, is the difference grounded in one group’s having voted for certification and the other’s staying the course in objecting? Here I think that this gets us closer to the explanation. To take the stage and affirm publicly — not just with words, but with action, legislative vote — that I do not object to the election certification is a significant expression of values. That one cannot “in good conscience” object to the election suggests that that individual explicitly disowns the values a rejection of the results would endorse. That is, to reject the election results in spite of the facts on the ground is, many believe, to knowingly sow false information and encourage unwarranted disillusion  with the legitimacy of the government. Hence, what distinguishes the individual who, in action, genuinely repudiates this path, from the individual who, in objecting, sustains this path is their endorsed values expressed. One is blaming “in bad faith.” This is why, I want to suggest, it is more appropriate in the eyes of many for someone to express outrage at the Capitol rioters if that person repudiates the underlying ethos. And this seems true even if they were once in conduct in unison with that ethos. As long as they firmly no longer are. One may express moral outrage at the riots as long as one’s words and actions don’t belie endorsement, explicit or implicit, of that wrongdoing (at least according to the court of public moral sentiment). 

Alternatively, we can explain the lack of standing a committed objector has to blame rioters as rooted in an objectionable exception-making for oneself. Although the election objector holds the rioters responsible for insurrection and undermining democracy, they do not hold themselves accountable for their own words and actions to the same standard. (All of these points can apply independent of whether someone is still morally or criminally responsible for earlier actions, of course.)

It would be remiss, though, to ignore the further question of how we, as citizens, ought to react, both in moral voice and action, to heal and restore our nation. The magnitude of the wrongs of those in power and others, the complicity of many, and the current and potential threats to our democracy are at issue. Ought we to find it appropriate for some to express outrage but inappropriate for others to do the same? On the one hand, the situation is such that we must hold those in power who were involved accountable, at least legally speaking. On the other hand, it seems allowing those who evince genuine transformation of values to express their outrage may be beneficial insofar as their condemnation of the riots and election undermining further amplifies the public and bipartisan acknowledgement of wrong. Perhaps this amplified message will reach more ears, convince more minds, and help bring about a more unified address of our standing predicament. I’ll leave the navigation of this important pragmatic question to those better suited to steering the just future of our Democracy.