Rather than expanding on the excellent editorial on the opposite page Tuesday on the subject of a letter printed on this page last Friday, I'm going into word-nerd mode on a letter appearing here today. Politics have encroached into Every. Single. Area. of our lives. And in the fight over the definition of "insurrection," we've headed there again.
Dang it. Just give me one day without politics messing up a delightful pastime. The days my word-nerdy social media feeds are infected with politics are days that are better spent playing Words With Friends or putting together a jigsaw puzzle. But here we are.
The word nerd in me (and likely several of you) takes issue with today's letter-writer's definition of "insurrection": "A true insurrection is perpetuated by a very large number of armed citizens in revolt against a government, using violence, with the purpose of a complete overthrow of authority. Think of the American 'insurrection' against Great Britain, or the poor of France overthrowing the ruling monarchy in France. It is not a protest with a few who get out of hand."
What you'll find when you look for a definition of insurrection usually falls along the same lines as Merriam-Webster's definition: "an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government." The dictionary goes further in a section about choosing the right synonym for the word (nuance is important, ya know).
"Rebellion, revolution, uprising, revolt, insurrection [and] mutiny mean an outbreak against authority. Rebellion implies an open formidable resistance that is often unsuccessful. ... Revolution applies to a successful rebellion resulting in a major change (as in government). ... Uprising implies a brief, limited, and often immediately ineffective rebellion. ... Revolt and insurrection imply an armed uprising that quickly fails or succeeds. ... Mutiny applies to group insubordination or insurrection especially against naval authority."
Oxford defines insurrection as "a violent uprising against an authority or government." Cambridge says it is "an organized attempt by a group of people to defeat their government and take control of their country, usually by violence." FindLaw Legal Dictionary defines it as "the act or an instance of revolting [especially] violently against civil or political authority or against an established government; also the crime of inciting or engaging in such revolt."
We can debate the letter-writer's "very large number" till the cows come home, but the Capitol was literally overrun with people, intent on stopping the electoral certification, who broke windows and doors and fought anyone who tried to stop them from getting in, and many of them were in fact armed. We won't even get into the debate about rioters not being armed because they didn't fire any guns. Armed means having anything (knife, stun gun, bear spray, etc.) that could be used as a weapon, not specifically guns. There were guns found on at least three people arrested that day; the bulk of the rioters weren't searched.
While the core definition is mostly correct, as far as I'm concerned, calling something like what happened Jan. 6, 2021, "a protest with a few who get out of hand" is downplaying that day's events.
A year after that day, Time magazine published a piece discussing the history of the word "insurrection" in the U.S., specifically as it applies to Black Americans, by Hawa Allan, an attorney and author, in which she wrote, "[T]here has been an ongoing and heated debate over whether to call the event an 'insurrection.'
"This much is undisputed: hundreds of rally attendees--some armed with metal flagpoles, baseball bats, pepper spray and stun guns--smashed their way into the Capitol building and loitered in the halls, splintering off to rummage through offices or maraud an empty chamber of Congress. Five people died [within 36 hours of] that day as a result of the clash between the crowd and Capitol police, and at least 140 were reportedly injured. However, the interpretation of those facts has largely diverged into polar opposites."
Wrote Allan: "The crux ... lies in whether the crowd was truly violent--an attribution that has faced resistance. This distinction determines whether those who breached the Capitol are to be accurately described as 'rally goers' or 'rioters,' 'patriots' or 'terrorists,' 'peaceful protesters' or 'insurrectionists,'" noting that the labels are neither benign nor interchangeable.
Considering the damage done to the Capitol, the injuries and deaths that resulted, hours of video showing officers and others being beaten with flagpoles and whatever else could be brought to hand, as well as the convictions of several Proud Boys and Oath Keepers members and leaders for conspiring to use violence to overturn the election, I'm going out on a limb and calling Jan. 6, 2021, an insurrection, confident that the mostly apolitical world of word nerds would agree.
Others won't, of course, but differences are what make conversations like this vital.
Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at email@example.com. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com.