One year later: A lesson
The first thing I remember are the Capitol Police.
One approached House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and whispered in her ear. I turned to a colleague, who showed me live coverage of rioters storming the Capitol steps.
I asked, “When was that?”
“It’s live,” he responded.
It was Jan. 6, 2021, and my fellow members of Congress and I were inside the U.S. Capitol in the chambers of the U.S. House of Representatives to fulfill our constitutional duty and certify the results of the 2020 presidential election.
We were there when rioters pushed past barricades and stormed the Capitol. We were there as they broke through windows and doors, threatening the lives of police officers. We were there as the Capitol was stormed and our democracy — the foundation of America — was threatened.
I wrote then that, “when there is nothing separating you from an armed mob except a door and a few brave cops … all you want is to live.”
One year later, I am still deeply grateful to the Capitol Police who saved me and my colleagues. I will be grateful to them for the rest of my life.
Hours into the attack, those police officers cleared the Capitol. And the U.S. House and Senate returned to work and certified the election results.
As the weeks following Jan. 6 turned into months — now a year — I believe we still can’t fully grasp the impact that day had on our nation.
One thing is clear: This was a moment in American history that will always serve as a stark reminder that democracy is never a guarantee.
For generations, most of us have enjoyed a safe and stable country. Heated political campaigns have ultimately given way to peaceful transitions of power, no matter the victor. We take for granted that the law of the land will be enforced and that the results of our free and fair elections will always be respected. While a luxury for so many across the world, we have always trusted that our votes will be counted and the voice of the people will be heard.
We have believed that democracy is an unchangeable, perpetual fact in our nation — it has always been there and always will be. But many of us have forgotten the hard-won fights of the generations before us that have kept this country on its righteous path. Because, in fact, democracy is a fragile thing.
Our democracy requires the dedication and investment of those who value it. If we want to continue to live in a democratic nation, it’s up to us to protect and strengthen it. To shore it up against violence. And shield it from lies and disinformation intended to derail our values and overthrow elections.
Because if we fail, it will whither away.
Is our government perfect? No. Sometimes, the people elected turn out not to be the right people for the job. Sometimes the wheels of democracy grind excruciatingly slow. And sometimes the people out of power aren’t heard.
But there is something perfect about it: Democracy is the only form of government that gives The People the power. That includes the power to make our nation better. The power to choose our leaders — and change them if we decide. The power to speak our minds freely even when we disagree. And the power and freedom to vote our values.
In our nation, the power lies with The People. So much so that it’s the very first three words that begin our constitution: We The People.
But We The People are at a crossroads: Will we choose to be well-read, not fed by TV, talk radio and social media? Will we refuse to tolerate lies?
And our media — so important to our democracy they’ve been nicknamed the Fourth Estate — will they help educate? Will they provide the critical context necessary for the public to truly understand what’s happening in our nation?
We need more Americans — including our leaders — to choose empathy over anger, democracy and lawfulness over resentment and self-serving. And we need to put aside tribalistic lines and see the neighbor — the person — behind each social media post or smart device screen.
In the course of my life in public service and beyond, one truth has been proven over and over again: Most Americans — Republicans, Democrats, Independents and everyone in between — wake up every morning wanting to make our nation a better place. Even if we disagree about how best to do it. It was this principle that united us in our democracy. It still can.
As we reflect on the anniversary of this tragic day in America, let’s not lose sight of the fact that, at the end of a long night, democracy prevailed. And now it’s up to us to work together to make sure that democracy never fails.
Cheri Bustos represents Illinois’ 17th District.
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