Jan. 6, 2021, will go down as one of the ugliest days in American history. For the first time since the War of 1812, the U.S. Capitol suffered a major breach. Lives were lost. And an American president incited thousands of rioters to storm the Capitol to halt the work of our democracy.
My morning started with preparation for an anticipated objection to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes. I was asked to be one of the speakers who would defend the almost seven million legally cast ballots from Nov. 3.
I focused my speech on the survival of American democracy. In it, I planned to quote one of our Founding Fathers, John Adams, who wrote: “Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Little did I know that it wasn’t just the challenge to electoral votes that would threaten our democracy, but also a group of armed Trump-supporting thugs.
As we prepared for the start of the joint session, I caught a video clip of the president inciting his supporters to march to the Capitol after feeding them a steady diet of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and lies. I feared this incitement would not end well, but never did I imagine that there would be an insurrection.
I had always felt safe in the Capitol building and believed it is one of the safest places in the country. It never crossed my mind that the Capitol could turn into the most dangerous place to be, or that being here would make you a target of insurrectionists.
My experience with the breach started with conflicting notifications of building evacuations as I heard yelling and loud bangs right outside my window. Information on what was really going on was difficult to ascertain, with Capitol Police only telling us to shelter in place. So, I prepared the office to look as though no one was in it by locking the door, turning all electronics to quiet, and turning off the lights. My staff and I sheltered in place and we kept working.
The lawless thugs who breached the Capitol building were not protesters. They were insurrectionists who wanted to damage our democracy for the benefit of one person: Donald J. Trump. I fully expect all of them to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Those who stormed the Capitol looking to cause violence are clearly a threat. But the larger threat is posed by the unprincipled people — including political leaders — who concoct and disseminate hate, conspiracy theories, and lies.
As the afternoon went on, one person was conspicuously quiet: the president of the United States. He was the instigator of what was happening. Yet he was nowhere to be seen or heard after his lunchtime White House MAGA rally. The leader of our country performed a disappearing act, abandoning the American people because of his own insecurities and inability to accept that the people did not vote to reelect him as president of the United States.
After a few hours, members of Congress started receiving in-person updates from Capitol Police on the status of the building, which was improving over time. Although still stunned by what was happening, I was among a group of members of Congress who called for us to stay in the Capitol to finish our constitutional responsibility by counting the electoral votes and officially certifying Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. The thugs would not stop us — they merely delayed us.
As ugly as this day was, the end result offers hope.
Early Thursday morning, in both houses of Congress, an overwhelming, bipartisan majority of members reaffirmed the presidential election results. The thugs and rioters lost. For another night, American democracy lives.
Brendan F. Boyle is a member of Congress from Pennsylvania.