We watched with horror on January 6as the U.S. Capitol was invaded by a huge mob of homegrown insurrectionists, terrorists from within our boundaries. They stormed the Capitol steps on a mission to defile this building graced with the Statue of Freedom rising high above its dome. It is surely one of the most sacred symbols of our democracy.
I was honored to serve as a Member of Congress from our Central Coast for 20 years, including the dark day of September 11, 2001, when our nation was attacked by foreign terrorists, insurrectionists from abroad. On that day, as a nation, we were all united in our response to this enemy. Instinctively, at the end of that infamous day, we Members of Congress knew to gather on those same Capitol steps, feeling the need for unity, and to hold hands as we sang, “God Bless America.” Yes, it is a sacred place!
These days I’m occasionally asked to recall special memories of my time in public office. There are many, but rising to the top is another remembrance also having to do with the Capitol steps.
It seems that American history is often included in the 8th grade curriculum in our public schools. And even though California is more than 3,000 miles from the East Coast, some schools would decide to send their 8th graders to some of the hallmarks of the birthplaces of our democracy and raise the funds to do so through bake sales and other events. The students would experience Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, and, of course, Washington, D.C.
When they came to visit Capitol Hill, I met the students on the Capitol steps on their way to the visitors’ gallery to watch the proceedings on the House floor. I would point out the Supreme Court across the street and the White House down the Mall behind the Capitol. We would have a lively conversation and take a photo with their teachers and parents. I always asked the students to notice the steps on which we were standing. Even though they are made of marble, they are hollowed, worn by so many legislators over the years, of course, but also all the ordinary folks seeking access to the halls where our nation’s laws are made. Yes, it is a sacred place!
During the course of my time serving in Congress, this institution became more and more a partisan place — just as our local communities, indeed our nation, seem to have become. I realized as I returned full time to my home here that a national response to the kind of defamation that occurred on January 6would have to begin here, and in communities like this one everywhere. The hate and bigotry and violence that spewed onto the Capitol that day has roots firmly planted in neighborhoods, villages, and cities all across the country. And it is here where a genuine response and healing will occur.
And so I believe the answer and the antidote will also come from each of us who finds ways to strengthen and build positive communities; people who will go out of their way to support endeavors that do so. The Common Table Foundation comes to mind, and there are so many other examples. There is also the simple yet time-honored adage: Be kind to one another!
We who do believe that we have much more in common as people than the divisions we see around us are finding ways to demonstrate that belief, to act on it. We must continue. We must reclaim those Capitol steps. It is a sacred place, and it belongs to us all!