Yesterday brought me to deep anger and tears of profound sadness as I witnessed, along with all Americans and the entire world, America’s “Temple of Democracy” invaded and defiled by criminally-incited domestic terrorists.
First and foremost, I was worried about the safety of all the Members of the House and Senate, the support staff and law enforcement at and around The Capitol.
I didn’t want any of them to be hurt or killed. I had a sense of the fear they must have been feeling.
I remembered the rush of adrenaline and absolute focus that I felt when several of us were evacuated from a meeting with House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, from his office in the Capitol, just as the second plane hit the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001.
That was the first time in my life that I had ever heard a law enforcement person insist that we “Just run!”
The Capitol Police shouted at and directed us to follow them out of the Capitol. We were told to get to the East Front stairs and then “Run. Run away from the building.” They continued to call out that “Another plane is on its way to attack the Capitol building. Run. Get out!”
I remember reaching the east side outer doors looking down from the top of those long and wide marble stairs leading to the plaza below.
I remember that we could barely move.
Everyone on the stairs was jammed together, shoulder-to-shoulder. The entire expanse of those stairs and beyond, as far away as we could see, were filled with people packed together unable to move more than one foot at a time. Literally thousands of us had just seen how the Twin Towers had been attacked, heard that a plane had flown into the Pentagon, told erroneously that the Washington Union Train Station one mile from us had been destroyed and that planes were headed for the White House and the Capitol Building. We were all hearing the Capitol Police commanding us to “Run. Get away from the Capitol.”
And so, all the thousands of support personnel and elected officials from the three Senate Office Buildings within a half mile of the train station, as well as all the thousands from the Capitol Building, and the thousands from the three House Office Buildings just south of the Capitol attempted to flee southeast, at the same time.
It was like the people trying to outrun Godzilla or the aliens from the War of the Worlds movies, all trying to run away from what we believed would be certain death.
I remember thinking “Ok. I will die now or in the next few seconds.”
I was not frightened. I was resigned that, if it was my time, I would die with my next footstep. I just tried to continue forward, away from the building.
It was the same for the next 300 yards, as so many of us were headed southeast. It was then that I left the sea of people to enter a house where I had held several events as a congressman.
I went inside and asked if I could use their landline telephone, as our cell phone service was out. I used their phone to call my former wife and the mother of our children, hoping she would be home during this school day and would convey what I thought were my last words to our children.
There was no answer, so I left a brief message on her answering machine. I told her that, if I were to die today, that she should please tell the children that I was thinking of them until my last moments, that I loved them and would love them whatever would happen to me, wherever I would be, forever.
I remember putting the phone down and sobbing for a few moments, before I quickly left the building and headed back out into the street. There was still a tidal wave of people packed together, moving southeast.
On or about that time, the “beeper” communications device that all House Members carried with them in those days advised that Members should try to get as far away from the Capitol as possible, to take off our Congressional pins and any other markings identifying us as Members of Congress and await further instructions.
After about 20 minutes of slow but steady movement, we assumed that we had gotten far enough away to be somewhat safe. It was then that we realized that the place we had arrived at was the Capitol Power Plant a little over one mile from the Capitol Building.
It dawned on us that this complex might also be a potential target for terrorists to bomb as well. So we headed in a northly direction. Eventually, with the DC streets jammed with people—there were no cars able or permitted to be on DC streets during this sudden emergency–I had circled around to be at my rental apartment in the northwestern part of the city, which was located one mile, if traveled in a straight path, from the Capitol. It was there that I called my ex-wife again.
She picked up the phone and said that she was so worried for me and was glad to hear my voice. I told her I was ok and that I was in my apartment awaiting further instructions from the Capitol Police or other law enforcement authorities. I told her to please erase the message I had left for the kids. She said that the kids were still in school, and she would do so right away. She then implored me to keep her informed.
About a half hour later I received the blast message on my beeper telling me that the Capitol was secure and that House and Senate Members would be gathering at 7:45 p.m. at the Capitol to have our leaders speak to the American people and the world. We were going to show that America was still here, still strong and that no terrorists would keep us from the People’s work.
Leaving my apartment, I walked the mile back to the Capitol. Every 100 yards, there were military checkpoints with heavily armed soldiers looking to stop anyone from getting any closer to the Capitol. That’s when I showed them my Congressional identification card, put on the suit jacket I was holding, and returned my Congressional pin, that had been in my pants pocket, back onto on my lapel.
I eventually made it through all the checkpoints and arrived at the Capitol plaza. Shortly thereafter, about 200 of my House and Senate colleagues took our place on the steps in front of the center Capitol building.
Many press people and cameras were already in place, anticipating the recently announced re-constituting of the Congress and our leadership to speak to the country. House Speaker, Dennis Hastert; House Minority Leader, Dick Gephardt; Senate Majority Leader, Tom Daschle; and Senate Minority Leader, Trent Lott arrived and the event began.
The mood was somber, grave.
Only Speaker Hastert and Majority Leader Daschle spoke, for a combined total of no more than 10 minutes. They addressed the people of our beloved country, and the world, assuring that while our nation had suffered terrible assaults, we would not be intimidated or deterred from our work for the American people and our Democracy.
Then the event ended and there was an unplanned moment of silence. No one moved or thought of moving. We were frozen in place. We did not exchange any words.
We were resolute, looking forward.
And then, at that moment, we seemed intuitively to all feel the need to do or say something more. We wanted to show the terrorists and our fellow citizens that the American people’s representatives from both political parties were unafraid, that we would not be deterred from representing the people of our land and doing the work they gave us the duty and privilege to perform on their and our country’s behalf.
We were overcome with a stubborn insistence to show that “our flag was still there,” that our sacred Republic’s democratically-elected government would survive and go forward.
All of a sudden, unplanned and absolutely spontaneously, someone started singing “God Bless America.” Soon, all of us were singing it, shoulders back, with our solemn voices rising deeply and loudly from our chests.
And then the song was over.
And we disbanded and walked back to where we had come from.
These memories came back to me as I watched the events of January 6, 2021 unfold. Like so many, I was angry, offended, distraught, and furious at the Trump rioters who were attacking the Capitol Police and making their way around and into the Capitol, threatening everyone inside, committing acts of violence and destruction upon innocent individuals and our democracy’s hallowed space, and showing an utter lack of shame for their undeserved and repulsive acts of sedition.
I was incensed at Donald Trump for his criminal incitement to violence and destruction. I was enraged, as I have been for the past four years, at the reckless depravity, narcissism and despicable disregard of anything and anyone else—including all that is sacred in American society– that have been the daily horrors of the awful and pathetic presidency of Donald Trump.
I listened as the various tv and cable stations guessed at the plight of those inside the building. My heart and mind were with them all.
I prayed that they would all be safe and that our precious Capitol, our nation’s workplace and symbol of our American Democracy, would not be destroyed.
I was also extremely outraged that the intelligence services of our government had failed so completely to anticipate and prepare for this attack.
I felt so many feelings.
I felt the anger that would’ve wanted an overwhelmingly violent response to the presence of those insurrectionists.
And then, remembering my years as a city mayor, judge, lawyer and congressperson who had spent years studying law enforcement and military responses to provocations and attacks, understood that sometimes less is what is more. That to avoid escalating the danger to the innocent, including our law enforcement, was the better course. Although my blood boiled.
I knew that there would be time to identify, arrest and punish all those who incited and participated in this atrocity, to conduct a thorough examination about how this historic security failure occurred and to put into place measures to prevent this from ever happening again.
I also, like so many, wondered what would have been the preparation and response if the insurrectionists were Black or Muslim.
I am glad that more lives were not lost, that there were no more injuries to the innocent, and that, as of this writing, the physical desecration of the Capitol was not found to be worse.
As for President Trump, all those who encouraged or stood by silently as he fomented civil unrest in our country with his outrageous and constant lies, as well as the seditionists themselves, we must all insist that they will be brought to Justice soon and comprehensively.
I remain so grateful and proud of those law enforcement heroes who stood their ground, put their lives on the line to protect their charges and our citadel of American freedom and that the majority of them escaped serious injury or death.
I am deeply thankful that my former colleagues in the House and Senate are safe.
Like most Americans, I have not yet sorted out all my feelings from yesterday.
But I do ask that the Almighty continues to Bless America and our essential Experiment in Democracy.
We must and we will recover from this.
But we must learn the lessons that this abomination teaches us. First among them, that character counts.
In that too late, but very much needed category is yesterday’s statement by Trump’s former Chief of Staff, John Kelly, which I think deserves underscoring: “We need to look infinitely harder at who we elect to any office in our land — at the office seeker’s character, at their morals, at their ethical record, their integrity, their honesty, their flaws, what they have said about women, and minorities, why they are seeking office in the first place, and only then consider the policies they espouse.”
Steven Rothman, is the former eight-term Congressman from New Jersey, Bergen County Surrogate Court Judge, and Englewood Mayor.