I can’t stop thinking about the zip-tie guys.
Amid the photos that flooded social media during Wednesday’s riot at the Capitol—shirtless jokers in horned helmets, dudes pointing at their nuts, dumbasses carrying away souvenirs—the images of the zip-tie guys were quieter, less exuberant, more chilling. And we’d better not forget what they almost managed to do.
It’s easy to think of the siege of the U.S. Capitol as a clown show with accidentally deadly consequences. A bunch of cosplaying self-styled patriots show up, overwhelm the incomprehensibly unprepared Capitol Police, and then throw a frat party in the rotunda. The miscreants smear shit on the walls and steal laptops and smoke weed in conference rooms. Someone gets shot; someone else has a heart attack, possibly under ludicrous circumstances. When they finally get rousted, they cry to the cameras about getting maced.
Those rioters, the bozos, were the ones who talked to the press, who waved gleefully to photographers, who selfied and streamed the entire afternoon, without even a thought that there might ever be consequences. They were doing it for the ’gram, and their story overwhelms the narrative because their faces and voices dominated the day.
But there were other rioters inside the Capitol, if you look at the images. And once you see them, it’s impossible to look away. The zip-tie guys.
Call the zip ties by their correct name: The guys were carrying flex cuffs, the plastic double restraints often used by police in mass arrest situations. They walked through the Senate chamber with a sense of purpose. They were not dressed in silly costumes but kitted out in full paramilitary regalia: helmets, armor, camo, holsters with sidearms. At least one had a semi-automatic rifle and 11 Molotov cocktails. At least one, unlike nearly every other right-wing rioter photographed that day, wore a mask that obscured his face.
These are the same guys who, when the windows of the Capitol were broken and entry secured, went in first with what I’d call military-ish precision. They moved with purpose, to the offices of major figures like Nancy Pelosi and then to the Senate floor. What was that purpose? It wasn’t to pose for photos. It was to use those flex cuffs on someone.
In October, the FBI and state authorities charged 13 men with plotting to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan. Members of that plot attended protests at the Michigan Capitol in April, real planners of violence mixing easily with those for whom guns are fun protest props. The plotters discussed a summary execution—“knock on the door,” one wrote in the group chat, “and when she answers it just cap her”—but settled on a kidnapping, pulled off while police were distracted by a nearby explosion. Think of that plot, as these men surely did, as a dress rehearsal for what the zip-tie guys wanted to accomplish at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
They went into the Capitol, as Congress was counting electoral votes, equipped to take hostages—to physically seize officials, and presumably to take lives. The prospect is terrifying. But just because it seems unthinkable doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think hard about what almost happened. Don’t dismiss the zip-tie guys as “LARPers” or “weekend warriors.” First of all, given the well-documented overlap between ex-military, law enforcement, and right-wing militias, it’s entirely possible these guys were weekday warriors using their training in service of extracurricular interests. (One of the Twitter sleuths who are now trying to track them down sure seems to think they’re ex-military.) More importantly, the long awful course of history reminds us how slippery the slope is from playacting as a strike force to actually behaving as a strike force. Once the zip ties go on, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a “real” terrorist or not.
Today, we’re hearing more about the violence that accompanied the buffoonery: the Capitol Police officer killed with a fire extinguisher, the AP photographer dragged away by goons, the New York Times photographer thrown to the floor who feared for her life. No doubt we’ll hear even more as more stories come out.
But it could have been much, much worse. If the rioters had been a little quicker through the doors; if senators and representatives hadn’t just moved from their joint session into separate chambers to debate the Arizona challenge and had instead still been packed into one harder-to-evacuate room; if any number of things had happened differently, the three people next in the line of succession for the presidency might have been face to face with those zip-tie guys. And then: Who knows.