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EDITORIAL

A year later, waiting for justice

The only way to protect the Republic is to hold accountable the people who perpetuated the Big Lie and provoked the insurrection.

Former president Donald Trump, along with his enablers in the White House, Congress, and beyond, tried to subvert democracy in order to stay in power. There must be a reckoning for them as perpetrators of the lie that instigated the Jan. 6 insurrection.Eric Lee/Bloomberg

After he received the news of a brewing insurrection against the government of Massachusetts in 1786, a worried George Washington wrote a letter to a friend warning of the consequences if the state did not defend itself. “Commotions of this sort, like snow-balls, gather strength as they roll, if there is no opposition in the way to divide and crumble them.”

Divide and crumble. Today’s Justice Department, charged with protecting the Republic that Washington helped found, ought to heed those words. What was true in 1786 is also true after the insurrection against the United States that occurred one year ago, Jan. 6, 2021, when hundreds of people stormed the Capitol in an attempt to prevent the winner of a democratic election from taking office.

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So far, the government has prosecuted about 725 participants, of which 165 have pleaded guilty on charges ranging from trespassing to resisting arrest to assaulting the police officers who were protecting the building. But thus far, none of the instigators and inciters of the uprising — the men and women, including some in public office, who created and spread the lie that the election results were fraudulent — have been brought to justice.

It’s a glaring omission — and a dangerous one that would, in Washington’s words, allow the threat to our democratic system to continue gathering strength. While the direct participants in the insurrection certainly deserve the punishments that have been meted out, if none of the people responsible for the mayhem are held accountable the government will have failed in one of its most basic tasks — protecting itself. Former president Donald Trump, along with his enablers in the White House, Congress, and beyond, tried to subvert democracy in order to stay in power. There must be a reckoning for them, too.

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Proving criminal liability is a high bar, but that doesn’t mean prosecutors lack a reason to try. Inciting an insurrection is illegal. It’s not just the Capitol attack itself, of which Trump may or may not have had any foreknowledge. There’s also his attempt to subvert the presidential election result in Georgia, such a blatant example of obstructing the democratic process that it has triggered a state-level investigation. There is also the question of Trump’s delayed reaction to the insurrection after it began; did the hours he spent failing to respond to the attack amount to impeding an official proceeding, which is a federal crime?

The Justice Department operates in secret. It’s always possible that prosecutors are building a case right now. It’s also possible they are waiting for the Jan. 6 committee in Congress to complete its work, which could result in a criminal referral to the DOJ. In a speech on Wednesday, Attorney General Merrick Garland defended the pace of the investigation and said the department was following its normal practices by focusing first on smaller players in the insurrection; he seemingly went out of his way to emphasize that door was still open to prosecuting people who were not at the Capitol that day but were “otherwise criminally responsible.” But the department should move fast, because every day that passes only emboldens those who have tried to downplay or even defend the insurrection — and those who would seek to emulate it.

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Even if it makes no criminal referrals, the bipartisan congressional inquiry, led by Democrat Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi and Republican Liz Cheney of Wyoming, can still play an important role in getting to the bottom of the insurrection and related events and guarding against another such crisis. Armed with subpoena power, it can get the facts out. And it can recommend changes to the antiquated Electoral Count Act and other federal laws to make federal elections less vulnerable to subversion from Trump or bad actors in the future.

But in whatever form accountability takes, it is necessary for the people who organized election disinformation and incited civil unrest to be identified, disgraced, and punished. Anything less invites future attacks on the government and on democratic processes.

That 1786 insurrection that so worried Washington was put down by force. When he heard the news, the future first president congratulated Massachusetts for the “happy termination of this insurrection” which he said had created a “cloud of evils which threatened . . . by spreading its baneful influence, the tranquility of the Union.” Today, to say that the tranquility of the union is threatened would be an understatement. But for federal prosecutors responsible for protecting us, the solution to a seditious threat to the country is the same. Divide — and crumble.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.