Last Wednesday brought me to deep anger and tears of profound sadness as I witnessed — along with all Americans and indeed the entire world — America’s Temple of Democracy invaded and defiled by criminally incited domestic terrorists.
Watching the events unfold, I was worried first and foremost 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 emotions 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, in 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 that at us 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.” The officers 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, wide marble stairs that lead 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, was 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, just one mile from us, had been destroyed, and that planes were headed for the White House and the Capitol building.
We all heard the Capitol police commanding us to “run. Get away from the Capitol.”
And so 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, all attempted to flee southeast, at the same time.
It was like the people trying to outrun Godzilla or the aliens in the War of the Worlds movies. We were all trying to run away from what we believed would be certain death.
I remember thinking “Okay. 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, moving away from the building.
It was the same for the next 300 yards, because 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 the house and asked if I could use the landline telephone, because our cell phone service was out. I used the phone to call my former wife — the mother of our children — hoping she would be home during this school day and would convey to our kids what I thought were my last words.
There was no answer, so I left a brief message on her answering machine. I told her that if I were to die today, she should please tell the children that I was thinking of them until my last moments, that I loved them, and that 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, my beeper — the 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. It told us that we should 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 where we had arrived was the Capitol power plant, a little over one mile from the Capitol building.
It dawned on us that this complex also might be a potential target for terrorists to bomb as well. So we headed more or less to the north. Eventually, with the DC streets jammed with people — there were no cars allowed to be on DC streets during this sudden emergency, and they couldn’t have been anyway — I circled around to get to my rental apartment in the northwestern part of the city. If you travel in a straight line, the apartment was about a mile from the Capitol.
Once I got to my apartment, I called my ex-wife again.
She picked up the phone and said that she was so worried for me, and that she was glad to hear my voice. I told her that I was okay 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 and to call the school to have the principal tell them that I was okay. She said she would do so right away. She 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 there at 7:45 p.m. to have our leaders speak to the American people and the world. We were going to show that America was still here, we were still strong, and 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 carrying, and returned my Congressional pin, which 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 and I took our place on the steps in front of the center Capitol building.
Many press people and cameras already were there, anticipating the recently announced re-constituting of the Congress and our leadership’s plan 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.
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.
We were resolute, looking forward.
But we seemed intuitively to 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 doing the work the American people had given 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 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 people, 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 grieve deeply the loss of Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick, who was found to have been beaten and killed by Trump’s mob. I am grateful that more innocent lives were not lost, that there were not more serious injuries to our brave heroes, and that the physical desecration of the Capitol was not worse.
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 member of Congress, remembering that I had spent years studying law enforcement and military responses to provocations and attacks, I understood that sometimes less is more. That to avoid escalating the danger to the innocent, including our law enforcement officers, 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 it from ever happening again.
I also, like so many others, wondered what would have been the preparation and response if the insurrectionists were Black or Muslim.
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 all must 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 and 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. 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 those lessons, character counts.
In that too late but very much needed category is the 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 R. Rothman, Esq., of Englewood is a former eight-term U.S. congressman, Bergen County Surrogate Court Judge, and mayor of Englewood.