The Trump administration’s oft-criticized pardoning of war criminals and the rise of militias are intimately connected. Both academics and public servants alike lack the knowledge necessary to address this problem. Although warning signs have been present for decades, our nation and our leaders lack a firm understanding of the complex belief systems, demographics and ultimate goals of varying militia groups.
Multiple militia groups, including the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, as well as non-militia rioters, gathered in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 for a deadly riot against the election of President Joe Biden. Many current and former members of the military attended the assault on Capitol Hill, including at least one Navy SEAL who described himself as “ready to do rough things in rough situations.” Some violent actors claimed in court they understood former President Donald Trump’s speech that day as a directive to assault the Capitol building. As a photojournalist who has been observing these groups for some time now, this should have come as no surprise, yet I find myself shocked.
Places of higher education have an obligation to begin researching and expanding their capacity to educate students on growing trends in authoritarianism and its causes and potential solutions, especially the independence of the judiciary. Georgetown University is situated to lead this endeavor: We employ leading minds in government, law and policy, and students frequently go on to serve in government institutions. In order to effectively lead a troubled nation, however, students must first understand the problems our nation faces.
The Jan. 6 event follows Trump’s September directive for the Proud Boys, which the FBI now considers an extremist group, to “stand back and stand by.” The nuances of that command are important: “Stand by” is a military term that means “be ready for an order.” The commander in chief giving an order familiar to any service member to an unregulated, extremist militia is alarming. The military operates under a strict hierarchy — giving orders is a symbol of superiority, and receiving them is an act of accepted subordination.
The Proud Boys’ exuberant acknowledgment of the order to “stand by” shows they understood. After all, Proud Boys have served as security for Roger Stone, attended President Trump’s rallies and appeared briefly in campaign videos. A 2020 D.C. protest attended by Proud Boys resulted in multiple stabbings and 33 arrests, while other Proud Boys faced prosecution after violence in New York City. Against the backdrop of this violence, Trump was pardoning service members and mercenaries, or rather, private security contractors, for murder.
Trump’s pardons for violent war criminals have undoubtedly played a role in normalizing these acts by fracturing institutional norms. Former First Lt. Clint Lorance, who was convicted of second-degree murder for ordering his troops to open fire on unarmed motorcycle riders, was also pardoned by Trump. Additionally, Former Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, who was acquitted of the murder of a captive and convicted of a separate crime, was granted clemency and had his rank restored.
These pardons represent a significant change in how the use of force and investigations into service members who employ it are viewed by the public and, perhaps more importantly, by the military itself. According to the former president speaking at a campaign rally, “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!”
These pardons reinforce the idea that no one — even civilians — is safe from a single branch of government. Pardons can normalize immoral actions, like the military using tear gas against peaceful protesters outside of a church for a photo-op. When formerly uniformed members further employ the skills and tactics taught by the government for partisan causes — and without normative government control — our country should expect to suffer, as we did Jan. 6.
Normalizing illegitimate violence from federal troops exists in relation to another potential source of violent actors — irregular militias. The connections between the U.S. government and irregular militias are neither new nor uncommon. As early as 1998, the U.S. Department of Defense began researching ways to detect right-wing extremists and gang members who join the military to “gain access to weapons, training, and other military personnel.” To be clear, the danger of militias has long been present — what was missing was a match.
Yet for all of this forewarning, a former CIA station chief recently said it was “jarring” to see such an abrupt transition and calls for what would have been “unthinkable” prior to Jan. 6: a counterinsurgency program for the United States. There are two issues I would call readers’ attention to. The first is this call to action is answerable by the Georgetown community. The second is if Jan. 6 were truly unthinkable, we completely failed to identify the threat until it was almost too late.
Today, an alt-right militia group called the Oath Keepers, purportedly with tens of thousands of members, recruits current and former law enforcement, military and first responders. I’ve photographed them around both the D.C. and Richmond, Va. area. They are coordinated and prepared.
When these members gather for a common cause, such as the Oath Keepers, they become an unregulated militia with peculiar skills and a specific ideology. When the same unregulated militias are controlled by a president who unilaterally pardons war crimes, the picture becomes clearer, and the distance from unilateral control grows shorter.
The United States is not the only country facing a resurgence of authoritarian tendencies. Germany is just now acknowledging an infestation of neo-Nazis in the highest ranks of the KSK, their special forces unit. A German Army officer was arrested at the end of last year after establishing a fake identity as a Syrian refugee to incite civil unrest with a foiled plot to assassinate his countrymen. Five Proud Boys serving in the Canadian Army disrupted an Indigenous ceremony. Even Pope Francis has noted a global rise in the sort of sovereignism rhetoric that underpins many militias’ ideologies.
These cases demonstrate a growing international movement toward nationalism, one we are woefully ill equipped to counteract. Neglectful administrations accelerate these trends.
Trends in authoritarianism are dangerous and growing. The collective lack of understanding of these groups and their nuanced belief systems creates a dangerous knowledge vacuum that the former administration tried to exploit. Georgetown must dedicate resources to addressing this vacuum.
The university has already begun addressing this issue. The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection — based out of the Georgetown University Law Center — has generated a 50-state guide explaining laws regarding private militias. ICAP has also produced short videos on the subject. These activities are essential but insufficient on their own.
Georgetown has the opportunity to take the lead on responding to Jan. 6. From legal aid to state governments to researching the deep-seated belief systems different militias hold, much ground is left to be covered. We should all consider what complacency in this moment might mean.
Blake Hite is a J.D./M.S.-Health and the Public Interest student at Georgetown University. He served for eight years on active duty as an enlisted Hospital Corpsman and is a 2020 Leadership Fellow with the Student Veterans of America.