There are many contenders for the lowest point of the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021 — mobs of feral attackers brutalizing Capitol police; senators and representatives hiding in their offices, afraid for their lives; bands of insurrectionists hunting for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence; the sight of a Confederate flag in the halls of Congress — but one in particular always stood out to me: the way the insurrectionists were allowed to peacefully leave the scene of the crime rather than be arrested that day, shadowed by official assurances that federal authorities would pursue charges and take them into custody at a later date. Against the relief that the Capitol siege had ended and Donald Trump’s coup attempt had failed, a dark undertow flowed: would there be no punishment for these lawless people?

Yet after this inauspicious start, the Department of Justice has steadily pursued charges against the attackers. According to the Washington Post, “prosecutors say [the investigation] is the largest in U.S. history and has netted about 1,000 charges and more than 650 convictions.” The average conviction has involved a prison sentence of 45 months.

The last couple of weeks brought the longest sentence to date as Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes was sentenced to 18 years. Rhodes wasn’t the only member of his right-wing militia to get serious time: his confederates Kelly Meggs, Jessica Watkins and Kenneth Harrelson recently received 12, 8 and a half, and 4 years, respectively. Not only the length of Rhodes’s sentence in particular merits particular notice — his conviction on charges of seditious conspiracy make him worthy of special attention as we collectively assess January 6 and its aftermath (Meggs, too, was convicted of seditious conspiracy).

In Rhodes’s case, the basis of the seditious conspiracy charge was “conspiring to oppose by force the lawful transition of presidential power,” and the details of the government case fleshed out in disturbing and infuriating detail the extent of this conspiracy. The Washington Post notes that “Rhodes spurred followers with growing urgency to be ready for an ‘armed rebellion,’ organizing members who came to Washington with firearms prepared for violence,” “warned repeatedly that ‘bloody civil war’ was necessary to keep Trump in office if the election results were not overturned,” and was in close contact with Oath Keepers members as they breached the Capitol.  One measure of the seriousness of the seditious conspiracy charge is that Rhodes was not charged with entering the Capitol or engaging in violence, but for being an organizer of violent efforts to derail the transfer of power; this level of planning and direction was viewed by the government, and a jury, as meriting such a harsh punishment.

At the outset, the seditious conspiracy charge was not viewed as a slam-dunk by the Justice Department, with the Washington Post reporting that “bringing the politically charged count posed a higher risk at trial because it required that prosecutors prove the defendants harbored an intent to forcibly oppose the federal government, compared to the charge of conspiring to obstruct a proceeding of Congress [. . .] But the department calculated it was worth the risk to try to send a public message by charging the defendants with committing one of the most serious political crimes in a wider attack on democracy.”

Such details of Rhodes’s offenses and the DOJ’s successful prosecution make his conviction a milestone in the history and public understanding of the Capitol attack, one that helps cement our understanding that the day’s events were anything but a spontaneous event by overeager Trump enthusiasts. Rather, far-right extremists loyal to the then-president targeted our government for dismemberment, both literally and metaphorically. They knew what they were doing, they planned to do it, and they attempted to implement their plan.

It’s also vital that we call out the particular heinousness of the actions of Rhodes and members of the Oath Keepers organization, an anti-government militia that specifically recruited members of law enforcement and the military into its ranks. The perniciousness of such a group was evident from its earliest days, and the events of January 6 validate every criticism and fear ever leveled at the Oath Keepers (and indeed every other anti-government militia in the country).

When a group pegs itself as anti-government, the rest of us must realize what that stance implies. We can now reasonably understand it to mean that it wants armed destruction of our democracy. And that such groups support leaders like Donald Trump who might satisfy their dreams of an entirely different kind of government, one that is authoritarian, white nationalist, and willing to use violence to attain and hold power.

But the Oath Keepers deserve a still deeper level of scrutiny and contempt from their fellow citizens. For veterans, or even active duty members of the military, to join such a group is a profound act of disloyalty to the nation as well as to the armed forces. And for people like Rhodes, to essentially use their military training — training given to them to defend the United States — to orchestrate and engage in violence aimed at overthrowing the U.S. government is a special category of treason. The same special contempt applies in equal measure to members of law enforcement who grotesquely apply their publicly-funded training to the subversion of the laws they’ve sworn to defend.

True to his low character, Rhodes was unrepentant at his sentencing, telling the court that, “I’m a political prisoner, and like President Trump, my only crime is opposing those who are destroying our country. Rhodes also said he would “expose the criminality of this regime” while in prison. Unfortunately for his cause, Rhodes’s continued determination to essentially continue his insurrectionary activities from behind bars should spur politicians and the public to apply unrelenting pressure on organizations like the Oath Keepers and their supporters. At a minimum, we need federal and state laws that ban any current or former member of the Oath Keepers or other anti-government militia from serving in the U.S. military or law enforcement in any capacity.

Pursuing the perpetrators of January 6 to the full extent of the law isn’t simply about abstract notions of justice. The insurrectionists tried to assert through violence that the rule of law no longer mattered and that political decisions  should be decided by men with guns. For them, murder, mayhem, and intimidation by the armed few were to replace dialogue, majority rule, and social solidarity.

It is a powerful thing to stop a man with a gun with the force of a law, and that is what the United States is doing with insurrectionists like Stewart Rhodes. The prosecution of Rhodes and his ilk is how our democracy defends itself, how we defend ourselves: we are collectively powerful enough, and secure enough in the rule of law, that we can go a long way in defeating their guns without ever needing to fire a shot.

Taking a broader view, the Justice Department’s stated interest in sending a public message about the seriousness of the crimes is laudable. More than this: broadcast of such a message should be taken up the media, Democrats, non-MAGA Republicans, and other believers in American democracy as an essential way to combat the insurrectionary and authoritarian forces that are still alive and well more than two years after the Capitol attack.

This is not the same as saying that justice has prevailed via these convictions; far from it. Rather, such condemnation needs to be paired with an awareness that the same forces that engaged in insurrection continue to exist, and that those who attacked the Capitol to stop democracy from prevailing are on a clear continuum with those in the GOP who subvert election systems, suppress Americans’ votes, and incite violence against the LGBTQ community. In particular, publicizing the sentences of those like Rhodes needs to be linked to the threat posed by pro-insurrection politicians, most prominently Donald Trump, who seems likely (at least as of today) to be the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nominee.

At Rhodes’s sentencing, Judge Amit Mehta condemned Rhodes for his actions in unvarnished language, telling him: “You, sir, present an ongoing threat and a peril to this country, to the Republic and the very fabric of our democracy.” In putting Rhodes away for 18 years, the justice system has defended the United States from this single “ongoing threat” and “peril,” but plenty of other insurrectionists remain unpunished and at large to this day — most significantly, those higher up the food chain of rebellion, including Trump himself. We cannot consider the country safe until the legal system, thorough-going political defeat, or some combination of the two comes for them as well.