An Act Of Terrorism? An Examination Of The US Capitol Attack

On the 6th January 2021, the storming of the US Capitol Building sent political shockwaves around the world. The very foundations of one of the oldest democracies in the world had been shaken to the core, and for a nerve-racking few days it appeared as if the cornerstone principles of peace, justice and popular sovereignty might fall.

Thankfully, two weeks later, the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took place without disruption or violence, yet not before 25,000 national guard troops were deployed to the American capital, and established a ‘Green Zone’ comprising most of central D.C. (ABC News 2021).

Such a large military deployment was in direct response to the Capitol attack and the continuing threat of further violence directed towards the incoming administration. The FBI feared the apparent ‘success’ of the attack on the Capitol building would embolden extremist groups to commit further attacks on government institutions. State capitols across the country were put on lockdown.

In the last few weeks however, debate has raged over how to label the 6th of January attack. President Biden has used at least three terms to describe those who stormed the Capitol: Rioters; Insurrectionists; and Terrorists (ICCT 2021). Whilst many people have also utilitised the first two terms to describe those who participated in the attack, fewer journalists and public officials have designated the events of the 6th of January as an act of “terrorism”. 

The fact remains that Western media and officials will far more readily label an act of violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists an act of ‘terrorism’, rather than similar atrocities committed by the far-right. Yet, despite this, last year the Centre for Strategic and International Studies found that over 90% of terrorist attacks and plots in the US actually came from right-wing organisations. So, why the disparity between popular discourse and reality?

Firstly, whilst terrorism is an issue that has a huge impact on global politics, there is no internationally recognised definition of the concept (Mazari 2001, 1). Consequentially, generally accepted ideas regarding what constitutes an act of terrorism, and who can be classified as a “terrorist” are directly influenced by those in power. So, to dissect the public’s understanding of terrorism, we must first examine international power dynamics.

Within the school of International Relations, the theory of securitization is utilised to explain the relationship between those in power and the public’s perception of what constitutes a security risk. The theory explains how “securitising actors”, such as heads of state and politicians, declare that a particular issue constitutes a security risk, and consequentially argue for actions to mitigate it. Such ‘security risks’ are then presented to the public through the media, and the public often begins to see the issue presented as a serious problem (Buzan, Wæver and de Wilde 1998) in (Bright 2012, 863).

Hence, the manner in which Islamic extremist terrorism has been ‘securitized’ by Western political elites in the years since 9/11 through the ‘War on Terror’, has led much of the general public to only define terrorism in terms of Islamic extremism (Jackson 2005).

These generalisations and assumptions have directly led to the perpetuation of racial stereotypes, with racial profiling in airports becoming common occurrence (Vox 2019). Furthermore, when similar attacks are carried out by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, they are rarely met with the same response. When nine African-Americans were killed by a white supremacist in a church in Charleston in 2015, the attack was described by law enforcement officials and the media as a ‘mass shooting’ and a ‘hate crime’, but not as an act of terrorism (New York Times 2015). This is a damaging imbalance that must be addressed. We must look towards definitions of terrorism formulated at a distance from the state, in academia.

One of the most conclusive definitions of terrorism was constructed by the scholar Alex P. Schmid (2011), in ‘The revised academic consensus definition of terrorism’, which includes common elements found in most definitions of the term. Whilst this definition is too long to completely explore here, it includes the concepts that terrorism requires: violence or the threat of violence; is politically motivated; aims to cause fear; is intended to have an impact beyond its immediate victims; and needs to be communicative and coercive.

If applied to the most recent attack on the Capitol, it can be clearly seen how such a definition demonstrates what occurred constituted an act of terrorism. Those who stormed the Capitol building utilised violence, destroying property and resulting in the deaths of five people, including a Capitol police officer (The Guardian 2021). The attack was politically motivated, as the aim of the mob was to prevent the formalisation of the results of the recent Presidential election. Furthermore, the violence was communicative and coercive and consequentially had an impact beyond its immediate victims, striking fear into the hearts of many around the world that American democracy might fall.

The term ‘terrorist’ is “pejorative”, “loaded with condemnation” and can be used to strip actors of their legitimacy (Greene 2017). However, this is nothing less than those who wished to undermine an otherwise peaceful democratic process deserve. We must not cower away from condemning the attack on the Capitol in the strongest possible of terms. The same goes for any other attacks perpetrated by those of the far-right and other groups. We cannot show the weakness of indecision in the face of such depraved violence. We need to find the courage to call out such foul attacks for what they are. It is only then that justice will prevail.

Ella Handy

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the values of The Liberty Club


‘Many Ask, Why Not Call Church Shooting Terrorism?’ – New York Times, 2015

‘The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States’ – CSIS, 2020

‘Treat the Attack on the Capitol as Terrorism’ – The Atlantic, 2021

‘What Does It Mean To Call The Capitol Rioters ‘Terrorists’?’ – NPR, 2021

‘Capitol attack: the five people who died’ – The Guardian, 2021

‘An attack on the Capitol and democracy: an act of terrorism?’ – ICCT, 2021

‘Inside look at how 25,000 National Guardsmen are arriving in Washington, DC’ – ABC News, 2021

‘ How airport scanners discriminate against passengers of color’ – Vox, 2019

Mazari, Shireen M. 2001. “Defining Terrorism.” Strategic Studies 1-6.

Buzan, Barry, Ole Wæver, and Jaap de Wilde. 1998. Security: A New Framework for Analysis. London: Lynne Rienner.

Bright, Jonathan. 2012. ” Securitisation, terror, and control: towards a theory of the breaking point.” Review of International Studies 861-879.

Jackson, Richard. 2005. Jackson, Richard. 2005. Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics, and Counterterrorism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Schmid, A. P. 2011. Handbook of Terrorism Research. London: Routledge. 

Greene, Alan. 2017. “Defining Terrorism: One size fits all?” International & Comparative Law Quarterly 411-440.

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