Today, the FBI arrested a eleven members of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia, over their involvement in the Storming of the United States Capitol on 6 January 2021. The U.S. Department of Justice is charging Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, and his comrades with seditious conspiracy.
Historians, political scientists, and scholars working on far-right political groups and militia organizations have been tracking the growing racial violence and civil conflict in the United States over the past decade. The Storming of the U.S. Capitol clearly brought heightened public awareness of these trends, even if some politicians have sought to downplay the threat of extremist violence and domestic terrorism.
Analysts have been debating the level of civil unrest and the forms and dynamics of violence. Much of the news media discussion of these issues has focused on whether or not there is a threat of a “civil war” in the United States, often referencing the American Civil War (1861-1865) as a model for understanding civil warfare. Yet, there are other ways of envisioning the potential for civil conflict in contemporary American society, which is deeply divided by partisan politics, culture wars, religious animosities, and racial tensions. After all, the United States has experienced many periods of serious civil conflict in its history that involved armed coercion, intimidation, political assassinations, bombings, raids, massacres, and guerrilla warfare.
Students who have taken my courses on Religious Violence in Comparative Perspective and on Religious Politics and Sectarian Violence over the past fifteen years have considered readings on far-right politics, militia movements, the Turner Diaries, Timothy McVeigh, and White Christian Nationalists in the context of terrorism and comparative religious violence. They have read works on comparative religious violence by Mark Juergensmeyer, Talal Asad, R. Scott Appleby, Stanley Tambiah, and other scholars to contextualize and understand this violence.
Last semester (Fall 2021), I taught a course on Communal Strife: Civil Wars in World History, in which students considered White Christian Nationalists and the Storming of the U.S. Capitol as a case of civil conflict. My students read analyses of the Storming of the Capitol by Kathleen Belew, Philip Gorski, Monica Duffy Toft, Stathis Kalyvas, and others. They also had the opportunity to compare the recent civil violence with other episodes of civil conflict from 1500 to the present.
The charging of the Oath Keepers with seditious conspiracy brings the potential for sedition and civil violence into sharper relief, as legal arguments will now be deployed on the issue.
The New York Times rightly indicates that “the arrest of Mr. Rhodes, 56, was a major development in the sprawling investigation of the Capitol attack. He and the other Oath Keepers are the first to be charged with sedition among the more than 700 people accused so far of taking part in the assault.”
According to The New York Times, “beginning only days after the 2020 election, Mr. Rhodes oversaw a seditious plot ‘to oppose the lawful transfer of presidential power by force,’ prosecutors said. Some members of the Oath Keepers under his command broke into the Capitol in a military-style formation on Jan. 6 and went in search of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the indictment said. Others, it said, were stationed in a hotel in Alexandria, Va., as an armed ‘quick reaction force,’ ready to rush into Washington if needed.”
The active prosecution of the Oath Keepers for sedition should bring an awareness of the reality of civil conflict in United States society and the serious potential for further violence.
The New York Times reports on the arrest of the Oath Keepers and the charges of seditious conspiracy.