"Who killed Ashli Babbitt?" That’s the new MAGA rallying cry, a slogan to replace "Lock her up!" and "Build that wall!"
Ex-President Trump even taped a special birthday message dedicated to the "truly incredible" deceased Ms. Babbitt, shot by Capitol police while part of a mob trying to smash its way into the Speaker’s Lobby, which was played at a meeting in her memory in Texas. In the video, he declares, "There was no reason Ashli should have lost her life that day. We must all demand justice."
Trump, aided and amplified by acolytes from Maria Bartiromo to Rep Paul Gosar, repeatedly riles up his camp to query Ashli Babbitt’s death, at rallies, on Fox News, at CPAC. The implications of these chants are more sinister than merely satisfying curiosity.
Instead, by making the question into a slogan, Ashli Babbitt has been elevated to the status of a martyr. An innocent, wonderful woman, a veteran of four tours, a daughter - killed (or in Gosar’s language, "murdered" or even "executed") in her patriotic attempt to restore Donald Trump to power: a noble individual self-sacrifice for the greater good, or in other words, a martyr.
And just as Babbitt has become larger than life, so her ‘murderer’ has more meaning than the single police officer who took the shot: The "who" that killed her stands for all of the forces, political, cultural, even supernatural, arrayed against Trump and the MAGA truth.
From Jesus to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, martyrs have the power to mobilize others. The martyr’s example inspires others’ self-sacrifice. What’s more, a political movement with a martyr as its icon effectively demonstrates that the cause is worth more (in the universal currency of human suffering) than their opponents’.
That dynamic works for both social justice causes, and for more nefarious causes. The martyr is a potent weapon of mass radicalization for extremist groups like Hamas and ISIS.
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The martyr’s power rests upon two pillars: their alleged innocence and their determination. A true martyr is targeted without justification, allowing the public to allocate the blame for their suffering with the perpetrators. A true martyr’s determination to fight the good fight, to enter the fray knowing they will likely suffer or die, forces us to consider their actions in the light of their convictions.
Martyrs are motivated not because they are crazy, suicidal, or blinded by rage but because the cause is more valuable than life. In 2004, Hassan Nasrallah explained that Hizbollah, the terrorist organization in Lebanon he leads, would always prevail over Israel, because they "loved death more than their enemies (the Israelis) loved life." The slogan "We love death as you love life," attributed to Osama bin Laden, is also routinely used by other jihadists.
It is because they carry so much symbolic weight that political movements may also seek to construct and weaponize fake martyrs, like Ashli Babbitt.
Ashli Babbitt was no innocent. She broke into the Capitol as part of a violent mob shouting death threats and armed with plans to capture and execute U.S. lawmakers at the Capitol. Babbitt was shot in the chest attempting to breach a barricaded door that would have gotten her within range of their targets, Congressmen and Senators from both parties. Babbitt wasn’t just determined. She rushed a barricaded entry to the Speaker’s Lobby and acted impulsively, and was killed as a result.
Trump supporters may think they are breaking new ground by mythologizing the death of a die-hard supporter as a martyr.However they are actually joining a long list of propagandists, like Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, a key contributor to the Nazi playbook. At the early stages of Nazi party’s ascent to power, Goebbels constructed a martyr from a random individual’s death in order to mobilize supporters and intimidate opponents.
Horst Wessel was a street thug, known for drinking and singing at the local tavern, as well as for frequent street-fighting and pimping out his prostitute girlfriend. By 1929, he had joined the Nazi party’s brownshirted paramilitary stormtroopers, the Sturmabteilung ("Storm Detachment" or SA).
A dispute over Wessel’s unpaid rent resulted in him opening his door one day in 1929 to a gunman who shot him in the face.
Wessel didn’t die immediately. While he was in the hospital, Goebbels visited him, and directed his propaganda machine to publish articles that reinvented Wessel from a bully and a criminal to the innocent and poetic embodiment of the persecuted German nation. At Wessel’s funeral, attended by Hitler’s second-in-command, Hermann Goering, Goebbels gave an impassioned eulogy, whitewashing Wessel’s checkered past and transforming him into a martyr for the Fuhrer and for fatherland.
A member of the communist party was arrested and sentenced to death for Wessel’s murder. Newspapers began circulating rumors that in fact, Wessel wasn't dead: he was secretly fighting in a combat group.
The charade took on a life of its own, with a spontaneous shrine springing up at his grave and becoming a site of annual pilgrimages. Books were written, movies were made, locales were named after him, battleships and military units took Wessel’s name.
Reverence for Wessel eclipsed the religious iconography of the pre-Nazi past, with a 1936 German magazine article declaring: "How high Horst Wessel towers over that Jesus of Nazareth - that Jesus who pleaded that the bitter cup be taken from him. How unattainably high all Horst Wessels stand above Jesus!"
After the fall of the Third Reich, Wessel’s grave in East Berlin, then under communist rule, was destroyed. His remains were reportedly disinterred and destroyed. Wessel’s song, "The Flag on High," also known as the Horst Wessel Lied, which had become the anthem of the Nazi party, was banned. Its lyrics and tune are illegal in Austria and Germany till this day.
The parallels with Babbitt are many and ominous. In the first hours after her death, Ashli was celebrated as a martyr, then accused of being a traitor and an undercover antifa agent. Mo Brooks, Paul Gosar, and Donald Trump have made her a martyr again. After Babbitt was shot, QAnon forums circulated the rumor that she was still alive.
Babbitt is the object of an unprincipled attempt to create an emotionally resonant and characteristically conspiracist rallying cry for Trump’s base, and to build a complete parallel narrative for the events of January 6th, from insurrection to stymied resurrection. It’s a Manichean drama in which Babbitt, the MAGA martyr, was mown down by (so the groundless allegations go) a police officer acting on orders from none other than the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer.
Fake martyrdoms succeed because they feed off go the shared grievances and anger of the crowd, serving as justification for future retaliatory violence.
Ashli Babbitt’s unfortunate death is a weapon of mass radicalization, just like Horst Wessel’s death was manipulated by Goebbels. When Trump alleges that Babbitt had been shot in the face (she wasn’t, she was shot in the chest) it not only echoes Wessel but contributes further to the construction of Ashli Babbitt as a key martyr for Trump’s lost cause.
We already know who shot Ashli Babbitt.
The Capitol police officer who fired has identified himself and has also been cleared of any wrongdoing; he was one of the many officials who risked their lives to protect lawmakers and staffers from both sides of the aisle, including Vice President Pence. More than that, numerous Republicans, from Trump downwards, have tried and persist in trying all manner of tactics to block a comprehensive investigation of 6th January.
The Babbitt chant is not tied to facts but a call to enlist and incite. What should concern all of us as we approach the next presidential campaign is whether Trump’s base will decide it loves death more than life.
Dr. Sophia Moskalenko is a research fellow at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (NC-START). Her books include "The Marvel of Martyrdom: The power of self-sacrifice in the selfish world." She is co-author of "Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon" (2021). Twitter: @sophiamoskalen1