We’ve all scrambled to make sense of last week’s insurrection. The media has brought in constitutional experts and policy wonks to discuss impeachment, the 25th amendment, our federal insurrection laws. But if folks want another way to process the events of January 6, 2021 and consider how to prevent further escalation, talk to an abuse expert.
What abusers all have in common is how they prioritize their own desire above the safety, peace, and autonomy of their victim. Sometimes, the desire itself is to take away the other’s safety, peace and autonomy.
Last Wednesday, when Trump unleashed his mob onto the Capitol, we saw abuse happen in real time. The insurrectionists forced their way into a sacred building that belongs to us all during an important moment that also was ours. While chanting that it was “their house,” they ransacked rooms, smashed windows, busted down doors, and smeared feces on the walls. They came armed with guns and zip tie handcuffs, brandished Confederate flags, and planted bombs in buildings outside. They screamed, yelled, and banged, smashed, shattered, and stole. They filled the air with mace and gas. Some deftly staked out the place in tactical gear with military precision, while others seemed there for the chaos and cosplay, selfies and souvenirs. Some offenders say they were just going along with the crowd, there to witness a historic event, while others proudly reported that Wednesday morning they’d bid a final goodbye to their kids and were ready to “die for country.” They were there to terrorize the elected officials and staffers in the building with all of us watching. And they did so successfully.
By all accounts, it was pandemonium and true terror in the Capitol. Staffers barricaded the doors in the Senate and House, elected officials were crawling through gallery rows of chairs, ducking in the balconies. They lost shoes, had panic attacks, made distress calls to their families. Three hundred escaping lawmakers, some refusing to wear masks at the height of the pandemic, packed into a tight room, with access to one shared bathroom. Already at least three representatives have tested positive for COVID-19. Speaker Pelosi said her staff cowered in the dark under a table for 2 ½ hours as people stood on the other side of the door, in her pillaged office, banging ominously like some big bad Camp Auschwitz wolf. No doubt many thought they were going to die. And let’s be clear, it was luck—and not the temperance of the mob or law enforcement—that limited the number of deaths to five that day. There’s no telling what would have happened if the offenders had crossed paths with their chosen prey, Pelosi, Congress Members Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris or even Vice President Mike Pence, for whom a noose hung outside.
In law, we sometimes talk about pre-impact or pre-death terror. It’s the physical and mental experience of perceiving imminent fatal danger—think being inside a falling elevator or being tied up by an assailant who says he’s going to kill you—or, in this case, hearing, smelling, and watching an out-of-control mob dispatched by the head of state coming to kill you. The emotional experience of pre-impact or pre-death terror is one of mental distress, high anxiety, fear, hopelessness, helplessness and manifests in the body’s biomechanics: a racing heart, the inability to breathe, and profuse sweating. This dread and terror is an experience that victims of intimate partner violence, child abuse, and sextortion know well.
I don’t know how many participants in the insurrection are abusive in their personal lives. But it’s easy to fathom that individuals so willing to annihilate the safety and security of the terrified people in that building, not to mention all of us around the world watching in horror as the safety of our democracy was also under attack, were not novices to committing acts of abuse and non-consent. They were, after all, acting at the behest of a well-documented serial abuser, a man who fetishizes abuse for the sake of abuse.
Those of us in the field of domestic violence recognize the behavior of the insurrectionists. We recognize their need for power and control, their sense of entitlement, their appetite for destruction, their false sense of victimhood. We’re unsurprised by their unwavering preference to believe fanciful tales that the election was stolen over the inconvenient truth that their cruel, impulsive, immature leader was less desirable for over half of voters than the moderate guy who won. We’re reminded of the ex who believes they could only be dumped if cheated-on, ignoring the fact that they’ve been an abusive fiend for months and aren’t an appealing option.
Getting ‘revenge’ on the liberals by putting them in fear for their lives and desecrating the Capitol is not unlike how abusers act in retaliation for a breakup: hindering law enforcement, threatening far worse consequences if the victim of their abuse tries to get help – it’s all too familiar.
Our insurrectionists were both acting like abusers and, through their terrorizing, were also committing abuse. The Cycle of Violence, which keeps victims and abusers in a holding pattern of escalating abuse, has three phases we can easily recognize in the violence of Wednesday as well as the events leading up to it and those unfolding in its aftermath.
- Tension-building where the abuser is angry, critical, coercive, engaging in minor fights and arguments all the time; the victim describes feeling mounting dread and like he, she or they must always walk on eggshells. We saw that with all the threats and hostility on social media, the milder protests, the politicians ranting about the election being stolen, secret (and not so secret) negotiations to find more votes, and Trump ramping up the violent rhetoric.
- Explosive violence where the tension is broken through a violent outburst, which usually includes a physical or sexual attack, threats to destroy things important to the victim, screaming matches. This is the phase when injury or death is most likely to occur and when law enforcement may be called in by the victim or a witness. This was what happened at the Capitol on Wednesday.
- Honeymoon period where the tension has been cut and the abuser acts apologetic, regretful, and loving. The abuser may promise to change, get help, or say he didn’t intend to cause pain. There may be gifts. Whatever muted way we’re seeing the honeymoon phase, it’s by politicians who feel the country should move on, look forward, heal. The honeymoon never lasts.
The three phases cycle over and over again, rinse-repeat, with the span between them getting shorter, and the violence growing each time. Love, hope, and fear keep the wheels rolling and make it hard to end a violent relationship. And sometimes it continues until the assault becomes a homicide.
I’ve represented hundreds of victims of abuse in court. After a violent assault, the goal is always to help the survivor identify the attack as abuse and arrive at the mindset that it can’t be tolerated. The post-assault offender will usually be very conciliatory and apologetic, preaching for healing and therapy and promising to change. After the first assault in a relationship, few people leave the relationship for good. Statistically, it takes a survivor of intimate partner violence seven attempts to leave a relationship. It’s hard to resist apologies and pleas for forgiveness, deeply preferring that things just return to normal:the pair may share a lease, mortgage, kids, have the holidays coming up. Or the victim may feel he, she, or they have no other options, because the abuser has financial or immigration control, is threatening to retaliate online, come after their job or kids, or file false police reports.
There’s a certain type of abuser who will only stop when the law is laid down. The victim may say no, get family and friends to intervene, send a cease and desist, get an order of protection. But nothing helps—the threats and demands, ultimatums and terrorizing visits—persist. This most persistent type of abuser is the one who, like the insurrectionists, are driven by dogma and outsized rage,the egotistical belief that he, she, or they deserves what they’re fighting for, and that their victim should be punished for daring to think otherwise. This abuser is not fazed by the fact that another person’s peace and security are being threatened because, in the abuser’s eyes, they’re the one truly injured.
The biggest mistake we could make right now as a country is to fool ourselves into staying in this abusive relationship. Wednesday night’s honeymoon period where Republican supporters of the insurrection were encouraging peace and reconciliation was quickly replaced with new tensions and threats of local insurrections on the state level and greater violence on Inauguration Day.
Just like how the hours and days immediately following the end of a violent relationship are the most lethal for the victim, we can expect that decisive action against the insurrectionists, including the elected officials and conspirators critical in organizing it, will be dangerous and uncomfortable. Trump and his supporters will flail, threaten, and attack as we push to sanction and arrest. Some prosecutions will be won and others lost. However, the only way to end the vicious cycle of abuse with our democracy intact is to punish and incapacitate the abusers at all levels and to teach them there are consequences for hurting others– jail, legal fees, no-fly lists, job loss, impeachment, humiliation, custody issues. The alternative is for our country to remain stuck in a vicious cycle of abuse until our democracy is murdered once and for all.
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