A turn away from political violence

Court cases show that judicial patience helps break the appeal of violence and the election lie behind it.

An image of former President Donald Trump is displayed as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol continues to reveal its findings of a year-long investigation, in Washington, June 21.

In its public hearings, the House panel investigating last year’s attack on the U.S. Capitol has sought to establish that there is no credible basis for claiming the 2020 presidential election was stolen. “Until we get a grip on telling people the truth,” Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans on the committee, warned his colleagues Tuesday, political violence may continue.

Many Republican officials and candidates are still encouraging their supporters to believe the lie of election fraud that motivated the mob on Jan. 6, 2021. Yet as in many countries recovering from a major conflict, the value of truth as a remedy for violence resides less in official narratives than in the contrition shown by individuals who had embraced violence as a legitimate means of political expression.

This idea of relying on remorse may now be changing the tone of justice in the United States as courts hear cases of more than 800 people, so far, charged with crimes related to the Capitol attack as well as violence during anti-police protests in 2020. Some of those trials are showing that empathy may be a more powerful tool of justice than fear of punishment in breaking a person’s attraction to violence.

Consider this exchange in a federal court in Portland, Oregon, on Tuesday. The defendant, Malik Fard Muhammad, had traveled from Indiana in 2020 to participate in mass protest rallies against police violence. When the event turned tense, he threw Molotov cocktails at officers. U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez wanted to understand why.

“I was just wondering what your thought process was that suddenly put you in the position where you thought that this was OK, this was the thing to do, where people could get hurt or killed. I’m having trouble grasping how you got there.”

“I’m having trouble with it, too,” Mr. Muhammad said. “I felt unheard and dismissed and things just escalated to the point that I can’t take back.” He added: “I just regret my decisions. ... I’m here now to atone for them.”

A similar approach may be working in the most serious charges yet brought against defendants tied to the Capitol mob. Eleven people face charges of sedition and obstruction of official proceedings. Among the accused are the leader of an extremist group called the Oath Keepers and several of his foot soldiers. All allegedly espoused violence and arrived at the Capitol armed. Two have already pleaded guilty.

One, a man from Georgia named Brian Ulrich, wrote in an encrypted chatroom prior to the attack, “And if there’s a Civil War, then there’s a Civil War.” Fifteen months later, standing before U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington, D.C., he fought to compose himself as the judge read the terms of an agreement for his cooperation that did not shield him from high fines and prison. “Mr. Ulrich,” the judge asked, “do you need a moment.” The defendant urged Judge Mehta to continue. “It’s not going to get any easier.”He then took a moment to weep.

At a time when threats of violence against public officials seem to be on the uptick and many Jan. 6 defendants are taking plea deals to avoid jail time, the courtroom exchange between Judge Mehta and Mr. Ulrich offered a hint of something different – a turn away from violence and the lie that sparked it, marked by remorse and a magistrate’s compassion.

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