President Biden’s remarks on the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection rightly laid blame for the assault on American democracy at the feet of its perpetrators. For democracies to survive, assigning blame isn’t a game. The process of naming, shaming, and imposing consequences on those who threatened our Constitution is vitally serious business. A year after the January 6 insurrection, my hope is that we are entering a new phase of accountability, because without it the assault will continue.
I’ve seen this firsthand having worked as a diplomat and conflict analyst in several countries suffering through civil war and the breakdown of democratic institutions. Little good comes from moving on without consequence.
For more than a decade beginning in the early 1990s, Liberian dictator Charles Taylor stoked civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone. In that time, he signed more than two-dozen peace agreements and ceasefires, almost all of which included offers of impunity for himself and his forces in order to incentivize dealmaking. Taylor then used negotiating periods to regroup and rearm so he could break the deal as soon as it was advantageous. Not until the region and the international community established the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which convicted and sentenced Taylor to 50 years in prison, was he removed from office and placed under house arrest. The region, remarkably, never returned to war.
There are different ways to impose accountability—sometimes it’s through national truth-telling, as we saw in South Africa, Liberia, and Chile. Sometimes it’s prosecution, as in Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone. In all cases, the ability for local communities to see bad actors come forward and admit their roles in egregious human-rights abuses or get sentenced to time behind bars has helped define a common narrative and reinforce what can happen when leaders abandon the rule of law.
In the United States, we’re living through an era of impunity for bad actors, and the damaging consequences are everywhere. No Wall Street executives were tried or sent to prison in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, for which they bore culpability. Some companies settled lawsuits filed by the government by paying large fines, but they continued making billions of dollars a year. The problem, of course, was not what was illegal but what was legal. While the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial-reform law created some new rules, the Wall Street executives who placed risky bets with people’s mortgages never paid a real price. This sense of injustice fueled the Tea Party and exacerbated distrust in government.
We can tell a similar story about the leaders who established the U.S. government’s foreign torture regime during the early years of the Global War on Terrorism. While the Senate Intelligence Committee investigated and released an executive summary of the CIA’s torture program, the full report itself remains under lock and key. Some Bush administration leaders faced public criticism for their roles in the torture program, but none faced legal jeopardy. What’s more tragic is that the program has impeded justice for the families of 9/11 because the organizers of the attacks imprisoned at Guantanamo were tortured, derailing the possibility of legitimate prosecutions. Meanwhile, for years, the program’s existence undermined U.S. support for human rights around the world.
The good news is, the U.S. has gotten it right in the past—we just need to retrain those muscles. While there was no truth-and-reconciliation commission after the Civil War, the Grant administration pushed hard to right some of the wrongs that led to it. The fourteenth amendment barred former Confederates from public office. While magnanimous during the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, President Grant empowered his government to crack down on the Ku Klux Klan and the era of Reconstruction led to greater representation in politics for Black Americans. When Reconstruction collapsed, America lost nearly a century of progress. This tragic turn began when violent white mobs and their leaders were able to threaten and kill brave Black voters and commit coups against city councils and state legislators with impunity. The eventual result was ethnic cleansing combined with voting, penal, and economic systems that ensured Black Americans would be denied full citizenship and freedom from fear for generations.
Legal accountability for politically motivated crimes is essential to the health of democracy. Notably, consequences for those who participated in the recent white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, VA, had an immediate impact on the ability of those groups to recruit new members. Similarly, in the wake of the Capitol insurrection, consequences imposed by the Department of Justice, employers, consumers, and others have been essential for deterring additional acts of sedition, even if they haven’t been commensurate with the high crime of an attempted coup d’etat.
Today, U.S. democracy rests on a knife’s edge. While nearly 1,000 insurrectionists have faced criminal charges or investigations, 57 participants in the insurrection are running for Congress. Others are raking in profits promoting the Big Lie or basking smugly in their heavily gerrymandered congressional seats.
The bipartisan Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack will certainly lead to a much deeper understanding of what the former president did and didn’t do during the hours-long siege, and the role some members of Congress might have played in aiding and abetting the insurrection. It may even lead to criminal charges.
But what we ultimately need are the means—including courage across the aisle—to forge a public consensus about what happened after Donald Trump lost his re-election bid. And that means we need people and institutions who are uncomfortable in the role of political enforcers to step up. We need more Adam Kinzingers and Liz Cheneys and Mike Roundses. We need corporations to place truth above political affiliation and profit, and withhold support for insurrectionists, even at the risk of retribution. Those who spread the Big Lie or threaten state and local officials ought to be pariahs, unwelcome in public life outside of fringe right-wing organs.
When you break a bone, you must reset it, often with a burst of short-term pain, before the healing process can begin. But if a bully is still standing over you with a baseball bat and ready to swing again, you first need to neutralize the threat, or more suffering lies ahead.
History is lined with painful reminders that enemies of democracy rarely interpret promises to forgive and forget as reasons to unite and heal. Impunity more often guarantees that those prepared to destroy our democracy will return with greater violence whenever the opportunity presents itself. President Biden demonstrated the leadership our country needs by calling out our enemies, foreign and domestic, and defending us against them.
Tom Perriello is the executive director of Open Society-U.S., and a former diplomat, conflict analyst, and member of Congress (VA-05).