By JAMIE STIEHM
I don’t need a hearing to tell me what happened on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol, which was stormed by an armed mob. But the nation needs a reckoning on that deadly day.
It was a moment history will never forget, a presidential attack on an equal branch of government, Congress. This I can tell you: It was not a drill, nor a sightseeing lark.
I felt something bad would happen, but there I was to witness the saddest story I’ve ever seen.
A House select committee held its first hearing Tuesday on the event. Four police officers gave heartrending testimony on their beatings, injuries and lasting trauma.
A Republican congressman, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, was moved to tears.
“We never imagined this could happen,” he said. “This was a democracy-defending moment.”
Kinzinger and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming were the only House Republicans serving on the panel, defying their party leaders.
The mob meant to lynch then-Vice President Mike Pence and make Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi go the way of Henry VIII’s second wife.
Pence and Pelosi were presiding over election rituals and barely made it to safety. Lawmakers scrambled to make it out alive.
So did we. I was in the House chamber, in the press gallery. We heard gunshots in the Speaker’s Lobby as the mob tried to breach the chamber. I covered the streets of Baltimore for The Sun newspaper, but I have never heard shots before.
But I heard the steps and sounds of the mob on the marble floors of democracy’s citadel. They breached the Senate floor and made it a mockery.
What was at stake: a peaceful transfer of power, the core of democracy. In a morning rally, then-President Donald Trump invited and incited the insurrection, knowing hordes of loyalists had come to Washington. In broad daylight, a dark conspiracy became clear.
The House and Senate had gathered to certify the results of the presidential election. It’s in the Constitution.
Conditions were pretty perfect for a coup, as both houses were in a solemn joint session. Trump, the loser in the 2020 presidential election, intended to stay in office by force. He was beyond caring about casualties.
Meanwhile, the fury did not even sound human. The sound of breaking glass was even harder on our ears. Kristallnacht, the (Nazi) Night of Broken Glass, had crossed an ocean of time. This violent crowd, mostly white men, came from all corners of the country.
Some in the mob, with military experience, waged hand-to-hand combat with law enforcement. They hurled racial slurs at Black officers like stones of hate. Officer Harry Dunn told the panel he wept in the Rotunda that night.
That day, the U.S. Capitol Police were caught unprepared and lost control of the most precious building in the land, the people’s house. The mob was coordinated — with gear, bear spray and weapons — as if they had cased the joint with help from their friends.
“This is because of you!” House Democrat Steve Cohen of Memphis, Tennessee, bellowed across the chamber to Republicans.
The Capitol Police tried to turn the tide but were overwhelmed by tens of thousands of rioters. Some actually scaled the walls. Some broke through locked doors. Hundreds commandeered the gorgeous terrace designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.
Ironically, Olmsted created it to make the Capitol more inviting to the people. If only the Central Park architect knew, he would weep. So would all our historical figures in marble and bronze inside.
There was no time to weep for us. The House chamber was locked, yet we knew we had to get out fast. Some journalists put on escape hoods. We had one exit to a secret staircase; House members had another. Soon we rushed down the same tunnel, hoping not to meet the mob on the other side.
The president’s Pentagon was AWOL. If not for the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police sending 800 officers, the story would be sadder still.
So, we know what happened that damned day. Now the select committee must get to the bottom of who, why and how, Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Mass., declared. Not least of the things to investigate is Trump’s role as instigator of the highest crime in presidential history.
Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com.