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OPINION

What broke on Jan. 6 in America

On Wednesday, terrorists forced our nation’s representatives from our home — only this time, they were homegrown. This time, we did it to ourselves.

At moments like this, it’s always worth asking whether political Washington is embarrassed by an event, or truly ashamed of it. If we are so ashamed that we are determined for this to never ever happen again, we will finally and honestly account for exactly how we got here.Samuel Corum/Getty

We just witnessed America’s “home invasion.”

On Wednesday, domestic terrorists rampaged through America’s home. The US Capitol belongs to every one of us as Americans, and each and every one of us was assaulted when it was violated and vandalized by violent protesters who pushed their way through the metal detectors and marched through Statuary Hall past the statues of American icons to pretend that an election was stolen.

I spent 15 years working in the US Senate. It wasn’t always functional. And I saw some days under the dome that I thought I’d never forget.

On the morning of Sept. 11, I went to work in the Capitol as I had every day for three years. I was at my desk in the Russell Senate Building when cable television showed the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Less than an hour later, we were all evacuated, standing on the Capitol lawn with reports that another plane might be headed our way, with democracy itself as its terrorist target. Senators John McCain, Joe Biden, and my boss, John Kerry, could be the best of friends or the fiercest of adversaries. But on that crisp September morning, their conversation was unambiguous: the three of them sharing their unbridled anger that terrorists were forcing them out of the people’s house, away from the people’s business. Even in the uncertainty and panic of the worst terror attack in our history, I was never more certain that the Capitol complex was hallowed grounds in our democracy.

On Wednesday, terrorists forced our nation’s representatives from our home — only this time, they were homegrown. This time, we did it to ourselves.

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In 2004, I was the traveling press secretary in the grand traveling circus that is a national presidential campaign. I did the same job in 2008 for a vice presidential nominee named Joe Biden. In both of those campaigns, I accompanied the candidates to the Capitol when those senators left the trail to carry out their duty to their constituents and vote. I remember the understandable irritation of the Secret Service assigned to the candidates’ protective details when they encountered a building where tourists, school groups, reporters, staffers, and lobbyists roamed freely. There were no ropes and stanchions to separate the governed from those who govern. I distinctly remember a Capitol Police officer explaining to the Secret Service, “This is the people’s house.” Indeed, it was. These were the halls of democracy, where everyone was welcome.

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Today, I wonder: Will we ever get back to that moment of democratic chaos after Wednesday’s violent anarchy? Will the Capitol ever again feel like the people’s house after brutes and thugs put their feet up on the antique wooden desks once inhabited by giants like Humphrey and Goldwater?

Now everyone in Washington is horrified. Ivanka Trump has deleted her tweet calling the armed thugs “American patriots.” America won’t wipe the slate clean as easily as she cleaned up her Twitter profile. At moments like this, it’s always worth asking whether political Washington is embarrassed by an event, or truly ashamed of it.

If we are so ashamed that we are determined for this to never ever happen again, we will finally and honestly account for exactly how we got here.

We will wrestle with the reality that in 2012, when Trump was merely the first birther, Republican’s coveted Trump’s endorsement. We will struggle with the shame of the last four years, when so many who knew better didn’t do better — for every time that those who laughed behind President Trump’s back, publicly egged on his supporters, and enabled him and his lies. In his debate with now President-elect Biden, Donald Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” After he lost an election in a landslide, he called the results a fraud. He said over and over again that it was a stolen election, including at their rally Wednesday on the National Mall. He incited his base in Congress — a fifth of the Republican caucus — to object to the certified results they knew were legitimate. They did.

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If the Senate is truly ashamed of what happened Wednesday, senators will expel their colleagues who so demagogically, cowardly lied to the American people and objected to the certification of the people’s mandate. There isn’t a big enough mirror to hold up to see the reflection of all who brought us to this point. We should all be repulsed by those who stormed the Senate floor and forced the evacuation of the vice president, but we can save our greatest anger for those in Congress who convinced them they were fighting for something besides a dangerous lie. How dare House minority leader Kevin McCarthy say “help is needed” during the insurrection on Wednesday when he validated Trump’s lies about election fraud for weeks.

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The crowds will eventually disperse. The glass will be swept up. The windows and doors will be repaired. But what broke on Jan. 6 in America will not so easily be restored. Our leaders will have to decide whether yesterday was the end of something ugly or the beginning of something unimaginable. They have that power. But for today, all I can do is mourn the assault on a place where all of us should feel at home.

David E. Wade was chief of staff at the US State Department and is the founder of Greenlight Strategies and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.