Opinion

Would the Capitol mob have killed Mike Pence?

Why the riot's violent potential was greater than the sum of its participants

Grinning between a thick, grey turtleneck and a red MAGA beanie, a woman named Dawn Bancroft described her experience storming the U.S. Capitol in January. With her friend happily looking on, she spoke in a selfie-style video that would later appear in an affidavit from federal prosecutors bringing criminal charges against her. "We got inside. We did our part," Bancroft crowed. "We were looking for [House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)] to shoot her in the friggin' brain, but we didn't find her."

But what if Bancroft had found her? How real was the risk of violence to disfavored officials during the sedition at the Capitol? One of the impeachment managers in the Senate trial of former President Donald Trump for inciting the riot, Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Co.), on Wednesday argued the mob "would have killed [then-Vice President] Mike Pence if given the chance." Is he right? Was Pence — or Pelosi, or others like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — in true danger?

Many, like my colleague Matthew Walther, believe the answer is no. This was my initial take, too. I know people who would have happily attended the rally that became this riot, and when I imagine how they would have behaved inside the Capitol, I can't envision them hurting anyone. But I've come to believe there's a mistake in that thinking. The correct measure of the danger here is not what the average individual rioter would do. It's the behavior of the mob, and mobs of nice, normal, nonviolent people can and do kill.

Suppose Bancroft had come upon Pelosi without reinforcement from the angry crowd. I believe she would have confronted her: cursed, yelled, maybe even tried to steal Pelosi's phone or papers (many of the rioters left with congressional property and documents in hand). But I don't think Bancroft would have "shot her in the friggin' brain" in that one-on-one setting. Likewise, had one, isolated member of the "hang Mike Pence!" crowd encountered him alone, I expect the former veep would have emerged physically unharmed. (Granted, there were some in the crowd who seemed more capable of individual violence — think of the zip ties and tactical gear — but they were relatively few.)

But suppose Pelosi (or any similar target of the mob's ire) had stumbled, alone and unprotected, into a crowd of 100 or 1,000. Suppose they take notice. Suppose Pelosi tries to argue with them. Suppose she utters some phrase or makes some gesture they find particularly intolerable. Suppose she starts to text for help. Suppose one rioter smacks her phone from her hand. Suppose she tries to pick it up, and another rioter slaps her hand away. Suppose the whole seething group suddenly realizes no one is there to intervene. No one can stop them — certainly not Pelosi herself, aged 80 and dressed in heels and a narrow dress in which she couldn't run. There was no immediate consequence for the slap. There would be no consequence for another slap. And another. And is it really so difficult to imagine Pelosi ending up dead?

It wouldn't have happened with a noose or a single bullet to the head — nothing so orderly and neatly attributable to one or two people. It would have happened with the mob's quarry cowering on the floor being kicked to death, each rioter contributing only one or two strikes, doing just a small part, a part they could rationalize, a part they could tell themselves wasn't the proximate cause of death.

They would need to be able to tell themselves that, because after the mob mentality had faded, the horror would have set in. This is exactly what makes mob violence and the crowd mentality that facilitates it so terrifying: People do things as members of groups which they truly would not consider if the responsibility for that action fell to them alone. "The mob rushes in where individuals fear to tread," as a character explains in B.F. Skinner's Walden Two.

Psychologists like Skinner have varying explanations for the phenomenon, and I don't pretend to know which is most correct. But whatever the reason why, that this behavioral shift happens is undeniable. The behavior of a crowd is not simply the sum of its individual participants' independent choices. There emerges a distinct esprit de corps — joyous in a festival audience, jingoistic at a military parade, destructive or even murderous in a mob. Each small escalation encourages another, each act of violence committed without objection by its observers builds a new group norm of acceptable cruelty.

Dawn Bancroft almost certainly wouldn't have murdered Pelosi, despite her brags in her video. But a roomful of Dawn Bancrofts? Yes, they might well have killed someone they hated if they'd had the chance.

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