Finally, we could learn some useful lessons from Colombia, a country that has for several years tried, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to bring members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) back into society. The guerrilla movement had sustained itself for more than 50 years by selling drugs and ransoming hostages, and the decision to reintegrate its members created great ambivalence, and even hostility: Understandably, people don’t especially relish the idea of working alongside former FARC operatives who might have murdered their relatives, let alone paying taxes so that the government can help them retrain and find jobs. At the same time, leaving them to wage drug wars in the jungle isn’t a solution either, and so the program continues.
America’s situation is nowhere near as extreme (though it will be if the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys retreat into the Rocky Mountains for half a century), but some of the Colombian program’s principles have useful resonance. It focuses on the long term, offering former outcasts the hope of a positive future, and providing training and counseling designed to help them assimilate. Not everyone will like the idea, but America’s seditionists arguably pose a similarly long-term social problem. True believers—especially those who are unemployed, underemployed, or so far down the conspiracy-theory rabbit hole that they can no longer cope with ordinary life—are part of an intense, deeply connected, and, to them, profoundly satisfying community. In order to be pried away from it, they will have to be offered some appealing alternative, just as the ex–FARC members are offered the alternative of a legal life in society.
Not coincidentally, this is exactly the kind of advice that can be heard from psychologists who specialize in exit counseling for people who have left religious cults. Roderick Dubrow-Marshall, a psychologist who has written about the similarities between cults and extremist political movements, told me that in both cases, identification with the group comes to dominate people psychologically. “Other interests and ideas become closed off,” he said. “They dismiss anything that pushes back against them.” Remember, the people in the Capitol really believed that they were on a mission to save America, that it was patriotic to smash windows and kill and injure police. Before they can be convinced otherwise, they will have to see some kind of future for themselves in an America run by Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and a Democratic Congress.
I recognize that this is not what everyone wants to hear. Even as I write this, I can hear many readers of this article uttering a collective snort of annoyance. Quite a few, I imagine, feel that, having won the election, they don’t want to pay for a bunch of happy-clappy vaccine volunteers, or new roads in rural America, or mental-health services and life counseling for the MAGA-infected—let them learn to live with us. I can well imagine that, like the Colombians who hate the reintegration of FARC, many will resent every penny of public money, every ounce of political time, that is spent on the seditious minority. Some might even prefer an American version of de-Baathification: track down every last Capitol-riot sympathizer and shame them on social media, preferably with enough rigor that they lose their jobs.
I know how they feel, because I often feel that way too. But then I remember: It won’t work. We’ll wake up the next morning, and they’ll still be there.