January 6, 2021, was not a riot. It was not a protest, an insurrection, or a (failed) coup—at least, not exclusively so. None of those terms capture the exact nature of premeditated violence done for psychological effect to achieve political ends that characterized the violence at the U.S. Capitol that day. There is a better term, one that does precisely capture that mix: terrorism. January 6 was an attempted terrorist attack on the U.S. Congress. It is important that we call the attack by its rightful name to recognize the threat we face.
Americans seem uncertain about how to characterize January 6. In August, only 52 percent of Americans agreed it should be described as an act of terrorism, according to an NBC poll. That result is a decline from 57 percent in January, despite the additional information that has come to light since then about how many weapons the attackers carried and how much planning and premeditation took place before the attack. Most citizens are likely unaware of the new information and instead are responding emotionally: in January, it was fresh and seemed to merit a strong label; a year later, emotions have cooled.
Some leaders seem hesitant to name January 6 an attempted terrorist attack. In his inaugural address days after the attack, President Joe Biden warned of “a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” It took seven months, when recognizing the police who defended the Capitol, for him to unequivocally say that “a mob of extremists and terrorists launched a violent and deadly assault on the People’s House and the sacred ritual to certify a free and fair election.” Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, called the attack domestic terrorism in testimony before Congress in June, but the FBI has not yet brought any terrorism charges against any of the more than 700 defendants currently standing trial—likely because of the difficulty of proving intent for any one specific defendant.
Some have been more straightforward. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi compared the January 6 attack to 9/11, saying both were attacks on U.S. democracy—one from within and one from without. Former President George W. Bush made a similar comparison on the anniversary of 9/11, suggesting an equivalence between jihadists and unnamed “violent extremists at home,” who share a “determination to defile national symbols.” Congress, for its part, seems to have no misconception. The Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol was created “to investigate and report upon the facts, circumstances, and causes relating to the January 6, 2021, domestic terrorist attack upon the United States Capitol Complex.”