The cops who defended the Capitol were heroes
U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell wipes his eyes as he testifies during a House Select Committee hearing on the Jan.6 attack on the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, July 27, 2021 (Oliver Contreras / The New York Times via AP, Pool).
Seeing and listening to the officers of the US Capitol Police Describing the events of January 6 brought back memories of 50 years ago, when I served in the Capitol Police Force, and one of my colleagues said that “I would die for this building ”.
I know that historic building well. In the spring of 1971, just coming back from two years in the Peace Corps, I worked in a senator’s office in the morning, then put on my uniform and police special .38 at 3 p.m. to guard the Capitol. It was a sponsoring position, with dual responsibilities, that others like former Senate Leader Harry Reid retained in those days.
I was never prouder than Tuesday to serve in that force.
I moved on to other roles on Capitol Hill, including that of Senior Assistant to the Speaker of the House, for years to come. Having each of these jobs was an honor.
The videos, sounds, and sworn eyewitness testimony brought it all back.
What struck me again was the clarity of the call to duty expressed by each of the four witnesses: Private First Class Harry Dunn Y Sergeant. Aquilino Gonell of the Capitol Police and officers Michael fanone Y Daniel Hodges of the DC Metropolitan Police Department.
They knew what was at stake. His emotions brought powerful evidence of his commitment. Better than any elected official, they drew the patriotic line between the defenders of democracy and its looters.
We held elections in November 2020. Donald Trump won 74 million votes and Joe Biden won 81 million, or 7 million more than Trump. Biden won with 306 electoral votes, two more than Trump won the presidency in 2016. This time Trump got 232 electoral votes, 74 fewer electoral votes than Biden. The January 5 protesters stormed the Capitol to prevent Congress from counting these electoral votes in accordance with the Constitution.
Before the Capitol uprising, Trump told his supporters that Vice President Mike Pence had the power to revoke the election. He said it was up to Pence whether or not Biden was certified, and whether he, Trump, had a second quarter as president.
That was the first Big Lie of the day, the absurd illusion that desecration brought to Washington on a day designated to perform a ritual affirming our established democracy. As a result, people died: four if you weigh the cause of death conservatively, seven if you don’t. Two of the seven were Capitol Police officers.
I have always been proud, along with other Americans, to have held elections since our constitutional inception. Every two years we select people to send to the Capitol. Every four years we elect our president.
I am not afraid for our democracy in the short term, but the trend line worries me. Who of my generation can imagine a mob storming the Capitol when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, or JFK, or Ronald Reagan? Who can imagine a president really driving that mob?
And consider where we are headed. Trump still tells his people that he won. They believe you. Trump predicts he will be “reinstated” by August 1, and three out of ten Republicans say you are right. A former army general call openly for a military coup and it’s not big enough news to appear on Sunday talk shows.
Like so many hundreds of millions of Americans, I took the January 6 insurrection personally. It wasn’t just because of my years serving the country in those holy corridors. It was also because of what I witnessed in my later years as a journalist, how I saw people from all over the world fighting for what we have, and maybe they take it for granted.
Covering the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, I met people demanding free self-government in Hungary and later in Germany. As the Berlin Wall fell, I heard an East German nurse tell me that it was not a question of socialism or capitalism. It was about who he could choose. He wanted free elections so that the people could decide the issue.
Five years later, I was in South Africa and the fall of apartheid with the first elections for all races. Nelson Mandela refused to be released from prison, even after 28 years, until there were elections and his political party could participate.
Four years after that, I witnessed how Protestants and Catholics put an end to sectarian violence and decided the future of Northern Ireland based on the vote of the people.
In all of these cases, we saw men and women strive to uphold the basic principle that their country should be governed by majority vote. Many risked their lives for this principle.
On January 6, the Capitol Police took their place in those ranks of honor. They are also heroes. What keeps me awake at night is that they had to be.