Like so many of you, I remember what I was doing when I first heard that insurgents had stormed our nation’s Capitol.
It was about 2 p.m., and I was on the phone with my son Andy as C-SPAN played in the background. He knew I’d be following along as both houses of Congress prepared to certify Joe Biden’s election as our next president, despite efforts by a minority of right-wing Republicans trying to stop it. I was looking forward to bearing witness to this time-honored tradition of our democracy.
Andy and I had been talking for about an hour. This is a little unusual for us in the middle of the day, which made it all the more special to hear my son’s voice. We are both on college faculties – he’s a math professor with a Ph.D.; I’m most definitely not – and we were swapping tips for teaching on Zoom. A most ordinary topic for us, as I have often sought his guidance about this during the pandemic.
Suddenly, my phone started dinging with texts.
The first were from our two younger daughters, both wanting to know if Sherrod was OK.
Had I heard from him?
Did I know where he was?
“What’s going on?” I said to Andy.
Another ding – a follow-up text from our youngest. Trump extremists had broken into the Capitol.
Impossible, I thought. As the wife of a U.S. senator, I’ve visited that building countless times over the last 15 years. During February’s impeachment trial, every time I entered the building, I had to show my ID and hand over my purse to be searched by Capitol staff who’ve known me for years.
More texts, now from friends.
Where is Sherrod?
How is Sherrod?
Have you talked to Sherrod yet?
I grabbed the TV remote and switched to a news channel, which was full of images of mayhem inside the building.
“Go,” Andy said. “Let us know when you find him.”
When I reached Sherrod, he and his 99 colleagues were in lockdown in the Senate chamber, along with staff. Vice President Mike Pence had been safely whisked away, he told me, and armed officers had secured all the doors.
“We are safe,” he assured me over and over. We agreed to be in touch every 30 minutes so that I could know he was still safe and update our four kids.
The news coverage grew increasingly alarming. The insurgents, incited to riot by President Donald Trump at an earlier outdoor rally, had broken through the doors of the House chamber while it was in session. The images kept getting worse. Members of Congress fled for their lives. People whooped and hollered against a backdrop of shattering glass and piles of debris. Some waved Trump flags; others wore them as capes. One man ran through the halls with a large Confederate flag.
A woman had been shot, journalists began reporting. She was subsequently identified as Ashli E. Babbitt, who was shot by a Capitol police officer and later died. She was an Air Force veteran, Trump supporter and follower of QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory. Three others died from “medical conditions.”
Some journalists were targeted, too. The rioters trashed a pile of TV equipment. Men with red Trump hats stood next to a door inside the Capitol scrawled with this message: “MURDER THE MEDIA.”
I join the growing chorus of people demanding to know how this could have happened. How did these traitors break through security and swarm the Capitol? Why were some officers reportedly mingling with them and taking selfies?
It’s not as if we didn’t know violence was possible. Members of Congress had been instructed to arrive early and to restrict their movements to the web of tunnels beneath the Capitol. Sherrod, who has traveled by car since March, was advised to use an alternative route into the Capitol for security reasons.
This interview, after the attack, with U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez has been widely quoted for obvious reasons:
“I called my husband (Tuesday) night, and I told him that I was coming into work today but that should anything happen, I let him know where my will and last testament was located in the event that we needed it. And it’s a sad day in America when you are trying to come in and do your job in a democracy and you have to think about things like that.”
Trump’s response on social media was so egregious and potentially dangerous that Twitter and Instagram temporarily shut down his accounts. Facebook has since shut down Trump’s account until at least Inauguration Day. Calls grow for his impeachment or removal by what remains of his Cabinet.
What a terrifying day for our country, and one we will never forget.
In the wee hours of Thursday morning, members of both houses returned to their chambers, and the majority did the job they were elected to do. They finished the people’s business.
On Jan. 20, Joe Biden will be sworn in as president of the United States.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism.