9/11 and 1/6: America Resilient

By Steve Rothman
New Jersey Globe
January 7, 2021
Updated January 13, 2021

Yesterday brought me to deep anger and tears of profound  sadness as I witnessed, along with all Americans and the entire  world, America’s “Temple of Democracy” invaded and defiled by  criminally-incited domestic terrorists.

First and foremost, I was worried 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  fear 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, from 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 at 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.” They 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 and wide marble stairs leading 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, were 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 one  mile from us had been destroyed and that planes were headed for  the White House and the Capitol Building. We were all hearing  the Capitol Police commanding us to “Run. Get away from the  Capitol.”

And so, all 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 attempted to flee southeast, at  the same time.

It was like the people trying to outrun Godzilla or the aliens from  the War of the Worlds movies, all trying to run away from what  we believed would be certain death.

I remember thinking “Ok. 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,  away from the building.

It was the same for the next 300 yards, as 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 and asked if I could use their landline telephone, as  our cell phone service was out. I used their phone to call my  former wife and the mother of our children, hoping she would be  home during this school day and would convey what I thought  were my last words to our children.

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 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, the “beeper” 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, to 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 we had arrived at was the Capitol Power Plant a little over one mile from the Capitol  Building.

It dawned on us that this complex might also be a potential target  for terrorists to bomb as well. So we headed in a northly direction.  Eventually, with the DC streets jammed with people—there were  no cars able or permitted to be on DC streets during this sudden  emergency–I had circled around to be at my rental apartment in  the northwestern part of the city, which was located one mile, if  traveled in a straight path, from the Capitol. It was there that I  called my ex-wife again.

She picked up the phone and said that she was so worried for me  and was glad to hear my voice. I told her I was ok 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 I was okay. She she would do so right  away. She then 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 at 7:45 p.m. at the Capitol to have  our leaders speak to the American people and the world. We were  going to show that America was still here, still strong and that 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 holding, and  returned my Congressional pin, that 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 took our place on the steps in front of the center  Capitol building.

Many press people and cameras were already there, anticipating  the recently announced re-constituting of the Congress and our  leadership 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, grave.

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.

Then the event ended and there was an unplanned moment of  silence. No one moved or thought of moving. We were frozen in  place. We did not exchange any words.

We were resolute, looking forward.

And then, at that moment, we seemed intuitively to all 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 representing the people of our land  and doing the work they gave 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, unplanned 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, 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 the Trump mob,  as well as the death of Capitol Police Officer Howard

Liebengood. I am grateful that more innocent lives were not lost,  that there were not more serious physical injuries to our brave  heroes, and that the 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 congressperson who had spent years studying law  enforcement and military responses to provocations and attacks,  understood that sometimes less is what is more. That to avoid  escalating the danger to the innocent, including our law  enforcement, 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 this from ever  happening again.

I also, like so many, 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 must all 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, put their lives on the line to protect their charges and our citadel of American freedom and that the majority of them escaped more serious physical injuries–though  enduring a long, violent and deeply traumatizing attack by the  Trump mob.

I am deeply thankful that my former colleagues in the House and  Senate are now safe.

Like most Americans, I have not yet learned of all that took place  yesterday or sorted out all my feelings about that horrific siege.

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 them, that character counts.

In that too late, but very much needed category is yesterday’s  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 Rothman, is the former eight-term Congressman from New Jersey, Bergen County Surrogate Court Judge, and Englewood Mayor.