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CLARENCE PAGE: Was Ashli Babbitt a ‘martyr’ or just misled?

Was Ashli Babbitt a “terrorist” or a “freedom fighter?”

I’m more accustomed to hearing that question asked about insurgents in countries less developed than this one.

But, the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump has brought a lot of formerly foreign headaches closer to home.

Babbitt was a 35-year-old Air Force veteran, QAnon believer and Trump supporter when she was fatally shot during the violent siege, which resulted in five deaths, an estimated $500 million in damage to the building and hundreds of arrests.

Five officers also have died from causes that Washington’s chief medical examiner attributed to “all that transpired” during the riot. Four were by suicide and the fifth, Capitol police Officer Brian Sicknick, died a day after the riot from two strokes.

Babbitt’s name returned to national news last week when Lt. Michael Byrd, the Capitol police officer who shot her, publicly revealed his identity for the first time in an exclusive interview with “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt.

Byrd told Holt he fired his weapon as a “last resort.”

As widely broadcast video shows, Babbitt was shot as she was climbing through a broken window in a barricaded door that led to the Speaker’s Lobby, just outside the House chamber where the 2020 presidential election votes were being certified.

Furniture stacked up on his side of the doors obscured Byrd’s ability to see whether Babbitt had a weapon as she climbed through the door’s broken window, despite shouted warnings for the group she was in to step back.

“I tried to wait as long as I could,” Byrd told Holt. “I hoped and prayed no one tried to enter through those doors.” But their failure to comply, he said, required him to “take the appropriate actions to save the lives of members of Congress and myself and my fellow officers.”

Without naming Byrd, an internal investigation announced earlier in the week by the Capitol police found no wrongdoing on his part. The Justice Department announced a similar finding in April.

But that’s not good enough for some people. When investigations by conservative journalists and activists put his name on the internet, hundreds of threatening messages, including some racist attacks, were put online. Byrd is African American.

“They talked about killing me, cutting off my head,” he said. “It’s all disheartening, because I know I was doing my job.”

Yup, just doing his job.

Yet Trump, in an emailed statement to news outlets, called for “justice,” and lionized Babbitt as “murdered at the hands of someone who should have never pulled the trigger of his gun.”

“If this happened to the ‘other side,’ there would be riots all over America,” Trump said, “and yet there are far more people represented by Ashli, who truly loved America, than there are on the other side.”

Well, I love this country, too, so much that I am outraged that some of my fellow Americans would rather see our democratic processes disintegrate into chaos, just because an election doesn’t turn out the way they want it to.

Babbitt has been mourned as a martyr by members of the far-right and Trump surrogates — notably Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., who was condemned by Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and others for defending Babbitt and other rioters.

I, too, was saddened by Babbitt’s death, not because I think she was a martyr but because she was so sadly misled.

She wasn’t shot because of her beliefs as much as for her actions in service of Trump’s big lie that Democrats were stealing the White House from its rightful Republican owners, regardless of dozens of court decisions that have decided otherwise.

Now the argument has returned to the political sphere, this time in Congress where a select committee to investigate the insurrection has predictably stirred opposition along party lines. Set up by House Democrats with two anti-Trump GOP members, the select committee is escalating its investigation against predictable opposition from Republicans.

No surprise there. Fortunately, our major governmental institutions remain strong, but for how long? Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, according to an old saying attributed to numerous sources. That’s a challenging task in this age of polarized politics and misinformation-loaded social networks. But it’s no less necessary than it ever was.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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