Photo Credit: Tyler Merbler/Wikimedia Commons


The  storming of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob on January 6 has made it clear that a surprising number of police and military veterans are currently affiliated with armed right wing militias.

But suspending and firing a few police officers and soldiers in response likely won’t suffice. And any mass purge of America’s armed forces might even make the problem worse. After all, the Ku Klux Klan was formed by Confederate soldiers who were fired after our Civil War.

So what is to be done?

One promising alternative used in recent decades by former authoritarian countries as part of their efforts to consolidate their new democratic regimes has been “lustration” (from the Latin – in English “to lustrate” means to purify ceremonially.) 

Throughout East and Central Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, countries had to figure out what to do with their secret police forces. They also had to figure out how to ensure that their new, fragile democratic institutions were not populated by former secret collaborators with these security agencies. If politicians or persons holding public office harbored loyalties to the outgoing regime, they could sabotage efforts to build new institutions. At the same time, it was not clear which politicians had such connections. 

A similar dilemma now faces the United States with regard to police and armed veterans with ties to white supremacist extremists – what the Office of Homeland Security has called the “most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.”

As it has evolved around the world in recent years, the key task of lustration is to uncover secret associations.  

In post-Communist Europe, lustration took a variety of forms. A first step was to scour the archives of the former police. Transparency suggested that officials should disclose its contents to citizens. A key problem was that the archives of the secret police weren’t necessarily reliable. Using them as an exclusive guide for whom to lustrate is risky because they contain both false negatives and false positives.

In some cases, suspected collaborators were barred from holding public office. In other cases, voters were left to decide if they still wanted to support a politician whose name appeared in the archives. In still other cases, investigators asked citizens to volunteer information about their past connections, an approach that may uncover new information.

The most central goal of lustration is stabilizing otherwise fragile democratic institutions. Political scientists have quantified an impressive amount of evidence that lustration succeeds in doing this. Moreover, it does so in a manner that avoids the risks of mass purges.

This latter mistake was made by some states in post-communist Europe. The purges contributed to a drastic rise in organized crime. Fired police with no prospects for employment put their extensive knowledge of technologies of repression to bad uses, for example becoming mercenaries in the Balkan wars. 

Of course, lustration is not fool-proof. To the extent it relies on evidence of connections either to the former authoritarian enforcement apparatus or to white supremacist groups, it’s possible that evidence of such connections doesn’t exist, or was purposefully destroyed – or was deliberately forged. But the mistakes that will inevitably be made are preferable to collective suspicion that large numbers of military veterans and police are secretly associated with right wing paramilitary groups.

Given what we have learned about the participants in the insurrection of January 6, we believe the United States should seriously consider convening a national lustration commission. Such a public process could potentially enhance the legitimacy of law enforcement by removing an unwarranted assumption of collective guilt.  

By comprehensively identifying who has sympathies or ties to white supremacist groups, a national lustration commission could cull out those bad apples that police departments are forever blaming for their foibles. Even better, it could do so before more irreparable damage is done to American democracy.


Colleen Murphy is Roger and Stephany Joslin Professor of Law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project, and the author of The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice.

Monika Nalepa is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and the author of Skeletons in the Closet: Transitional Justice in the PostCommunist Europe published by CUP.