“Civil War is coming,” a New Jersey woman posted on social media days after participating in last year’s storming of the U.S. Capitol.
Indeed, America had not experienced a disruption in the peaceful transfer of power like what happened a year ago since the Civil War. Stark divisions between Democrats and Republicans make it appear as if the country is on the brink of tearing apart, but it wouldn’t be accurate to call it a civil war, says a prominent national security expert at Northeastern.
“We need to be careful about what we mean by civil war,” says political science professor Max Abrahms. While there’s no consensus over the definition of the term, most scholars point out that a civil war requires a certain threshold of deaths on the government side and the resistance side, he adds. Five people, including a Capitol police officer, died in the melee.
“I do not believe that America will become violent enough to be characterized as a civil war,” Abrahms says. That doesn’t rule out the prospect of further political violence as there was on Jan. 6, 2021, he adds, “but it will be short of civil war.”
Prosecutors have charged more than 700 people with assault, resisting arrest, and other crimes in connection with the events of a year ago. About 165 people have pleaded guilty, the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia has said.
Capitol security has undergone an overhaul since flag-waving supporters of former president Donald Trump overpowered armed guards and occupied the domed building that serves as the seat of the nation’s government. There is no shortage of theories as to why and how it happened, but a law enforcement expert at Northeastern says it boils down to a lack of leadership.
“I’ve seen videos where there were officers at the Capitol dressed in riot gear just standing to the side,” says Ruben Galindo, director of public safety at Northeastern. “They don’t know what to do because they’re not being told what to do, and that falls on the leadership or the incident commander.”
Galindo previously spent more than 30 years with the Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida, where he worked several high-profile events with large crowds, including two Super Bowls. Preparation was always key. A major sporting event is awarded to a host city years in advance, he points out, so security officials have a long runway to plan and coordinate with multiple agencies.
Likewise, the intelligence community had a heads up, albeit a shorter one, that something was likely to go down at the Capitol, but failed to react properly. “January 6 we all knew was coming,” he says. “Poor planning leads to poor decision-making leads to poor outcomes.”
Where did things go wrong? Investigators have cited a lack of communication and coordination among law enforcement personnel as one of several broken links in the security chain. What should have happened, Galindo says, is a layered approach that steadily becomes more difficult to penetrate the closer one gets to the intended target.
“You almost have to look at this like an onion with layers, with the center being the Capitol,” he says.
Recommendations for improving security include the hiring of hundreds of additional police officers, but Northeastern experts think that that’s the wrong approach. “I’m not a big proponent of beefing up security too much at the Capitol for two main reasons,” says Abrahms. One, he doesn’t believe that the incident is replicable—“It was driven by a unique set of events,” he says.
Two, he is concerned about the risk of turning democracy into a police state.
“One of the real virtues of the American political system is that it lends the appearance of openness, which is critical to a functioning democracy. We need to be very mindful about the cost of overreaction,” Abrahms says.
So what is the right balance?
It starts with identifying who exactly the enemy is, says Abrahms, whose book on militant groups, Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Militant History, examines why some of them succeed while others fail.
“Oftentimes, extremist is defined as anyone with whom you disagree, even politically,” he says. “The concept of extremism needs to be very carefully specified.”
In the aftermath of the attack, Capitol police officers are receiving daily briefings on threat assessments, and they have been provided with mobile phones for alerts and emergency messages, the department’s inspector general told Congress in a hearing last month. The force also is updating policies and procedures for lockdowns, and has started conducting more rigorous training.
Michael Silevitch and Carey Rappaport are electrical and computer engineering professors at Northeastern who oversee several security programs for the federal government. None involve the Capitol, but they think a number of architectural changes could thwart future intruders from breaching the domed building.
Their recommendations include a narrowing of the hallways to prevent large numbers of people from walking shoulder-to-shoulder. Reinforced metal garbage cans also can minimize damage from a bomb blast.
But that raises the larger question—could there be a repeat of January 6, 2021?
“Yes, depending on where,” says Galindo, the head of public safety at Northeastern. He thinks a similar incident could happen in the United States at a location that is not prepared. He’s doubtful, though, that that would include the nation’s capital.
“Probably not, but shame on them because it already happened once,” he says.
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