WASHINGTON — Many of us in our working lives have places away from the office that feel like a second home. It could be a back room at a business, a warehouse, a barn, even the front seat of a car.
For me, that place for years was the U.S. Capitol. Thousands of people’s lives are tied to that creaky old building full of history — but also serving workers’ routine needs with coffee shops, a post office, vending machines, take-outs and cramped work spaces. I worked as a reporter for more than two decades covering Congress, first for The Des Moines Register and later for Congressional Quarterly, where I once spent nearly 24 hours straight there while covering the marathon passage of the health care law. The Capitol became not just a building but a community.
On Wednesday, that second home was attacked, vandalized and defiled by a rioting pro-Trump mob.
The Capitol Police in charge of guarding the Capitol complex were overwhelmed and, judging from videos, possibly even complicit to some extent in allowing the mayhem. Many people are already questioning if the same would have happened had it been Black Lives Matter protesters at the gates.
Some officers tried to do their job, against the odds. It hurt my heart to see a video of a single Black policeman trying to push back an oncoming swarm of white insurrectionists as they flooded up the Senate steps. Where was his backup? Why was he alone there?
Former colleagues and friends who have spent their lives at the Capitol shared horrified texts throughout the afternoon as the rioters engaged in an armed standoff at the door of the House chambers and frolicked on the floor of the Senate. One triumphantly put up his feet on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk. Others destroyed furniture and broke windows. A woman was even shot during the melee and died later at a local hospital. Three others died in what has been described as medical emergencies.
If you know the Capitol, these scenes were even more incredible. “Astonishing and shameful,” one reporter friend texted. Another was reminded of the warnings of relatives who survived the Holocaust.
Members of the press have a lot of freedom in the Capitol but it’s not unlimited. The police routinely badger reporters to display their credentials and order us to move along if we linger too long in front of the Senate chamber. Bags are searched and examined at entrances, where often there are four or five officers. I once was scolded at length for sitting down my heavy backpack on the floor while I joined a scrum of other reporters in questioning a senator. The bag looked too suspicious.
Yet on Wednesday, hundreds of rioters broke into the Capitol, many of them wearing big backpacks with who knows what inside. “Murder the media” they scrawled on a door to one of the entrances. Perhaps that was part of their intent and if so, it was thwarted. Reporters huddling under chairs in the press galleries or fleeing through the tunnels emerged unharmed.
Our States Newsroom Washington bureau reporters were working remotely on Wednesday, for which I am grateful. As an editor in Washington in the post 9/11 era, one of your greatest fears is the safety of your staff as they produce the news. The day of those terrorist attacks occupies a place in my memory that is almost too painful to revisit — and now rivals Wednesday’s attack by my own countrymen and women.
Today the hindsight and recriminations will begin, and they should. I don’t know if this was a massive fail by the Capitol Police or something avoidable. Budget cuts and COVID-19 staff shortages may have contributed. Perhaps the spectacle of a president encouraging his supporters to invade the Capitol simply was beyond the ken of people who plan security. It should not have been, since he gave ample warning.
The windows will be repaired, the debris collected, the blood wiped off the statues. Congress defiantly came back late Wednesday night to continue certification of Joe Biden’s election as president, signaling that a constitutional process will not be stopped by marauders.
But I fear something has changed or shifted permanently, when some Americans will attack and try to destroy the very home of democracy they profess to love.
And you know what? I am a member of the press, and an American, and it’s my home, too.