Los Angeles (AFP) – A conspiracy-spouting extremist or a patriotic martyr? Ashli Babbitt, who was shot dead a year ago during the invasion of the US Capitol, is a Rorschach test for the deep political fault line that runs through the United States.
An Air Force veteran who served in Iraq and voted for America’s first Black president, Babbitt died wrapped in a flag bearing the name of Donald Trump, the populist billionaire who still insists he won an election that he lost by a wide margin.
Her journey of radical transformation mirrors that of many of the supporters of the real estate tycoon, who, on January 6, 2021, was desperately seeking to preserve his divisive presidency.
That day, Congress was gathering to certify the election of Joe Biden as 46th president of the United States.
Speaking to a large crowd near the White House, an angry Trump once again told supporters the election had been “stolen” and encouraged them to march on Congress.
Babbitt was among the first of hundreds of people to breach the Capitol building’s security, as elected officials barricaded themselves in rooms, cowering from an angry mob.
In footage filmed by one of the intruders, the 35-year-old can be seen trying to get through a broken window.
“Go! Come on!” she shouts, encouraging those behind her to hoist her in.
As her head appears through the window, a Capitol police officer fires his weapon, striking Babbitt in the shoulder. She would die from her injuries.
– MAGA and QAnon –
Babbitt was born in 1985 to a modest Southern California family in the San Diego suburbs, where politics was not particularly important, according to Roger Witthoeft, one of her four younger brothers.
She enlisted in the Air Force at age 17, straight from school, and did tours of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Subsequent spells in the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard led to a posting near Washington, as well as two more deployments to the Middle East.
Babbitt left the military as a relatively low-ranking senior airman in 2016, several years before she would have become eligible for a pension or other benefits, and she returned to her hometown, not far from the Mexican border.
There, she and her second husband took over a struggling pool maintenance company.
In videos posted to social media, Babbitt raged against both the homeless and undocumented migrants, castigating Democratic elected officials for “refusing to acknowledge or even admit that we do need” a wall on the Mexican border — Trump’s signature campaign pledge.
“The border is an absolute shit show,” she said. “There’s riots, there’s arrests, there’s rapes, there’s drugs… there are tons of issues.
“I want my politicians to start coming down here and telling me that my reality is a lie.
“You guys refuse to choose America over your stupid political party.”
She attended Trump rallies wearing the red “Make America Great Again” hat that symbolized the movement, and presented herself on Twitter as a “libertarian.”
It was here that she railed against the “pedophiles” and “satanists” she believed controlled the Democratic Party.
To her brother, Babbitt was just “a normal Californian.”
“The issues she was mad about were the things all of us are mad about,” he said.
“That was one of her things — for the first time in her life, she could actually say what she wanted to say, and didn’t have to bottle it up” as she had had to do in the military.
When the Covid-19 pandemic took hold of the United States, Babbitt embraced the anti-science rhetoric of the hard right.
A sign posted on the door of her company read: “Mask free autonomous zone, better known as America,” where “we shake hands like men.”
On January 5, she took to social media again, writing: “Nothing will stop us…they can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon (Washington) DC in less than 24 hours…dark to light!”
The phraseology is common among followers of QAnon, the loose amalgam of conspiracy theories that sees present-day politics as an existential fight between good and evil.
For some fellow travelers, this invocation was enough to earn Babbitt immortality as a woman fighting for the soul of America, a tragic heroine who fell in battle.
Babbitt’s mother told The Washington Post her daughter “made the ultimate sacrifice” to bring attention to what she said was “a stolen election.”
But she acknowledged that not everyone agrees.
“Half the country loves her and half the country hates her,” she told the paper. “It’s weird to have your child belong to the world.”