How do we rebuild our democracy?
There is a framed picture on the wall of the House Democratic cloakroom that the public cannot see. It is black and white, and it was taken in 1954. Several young pages have a stretcher hoisted on their shoulders and are racing a wounded member of Congress to an ambulance. One of these pages is yelling something as he points at the camera, presumably to order the person who was taking the picture out of the way.
That day more than six decades ago, four people from the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, armed with handguns, took seats in the visitors gallery. They later opened fire on the House floor and wounded five members of Congress. Today, you can see the graze of one of the bullets etched into the drawer at a desk where Republican leaders sit. If you look around, you can find other scars of a wounded democracy in the Capitol, but nothing like what was left in the wake of the violent assault last week.
One of my favorite activities as a member of Congress was giving New Yorkers tours of the Capitol. I loved its history and relished any chance to share that passion. I would start each tour by the carriage entrance in an original area of the building and point to a painting high up on the wall. It portrayed the Capitol in flames in 1815, when the British invaded. When I saw that painting, never did I imagine another invasion of the Capitol by Americans breaking windows, storming halls, and defiling offices.
From that corridor, I would lead my tour groups up a flight of old marble steps. I would ask them as we climbed what they noticed. “They are filthy” my constituents would observe. “There are stains.” They were correct but also astounded to learn that those stains were actually blood. They were spilled from a member of Congress named William Taulbee in 1890, when he was mortally wounded by a gunman. His blood was absorbed by the marble and became an indelible reminder of violence that day.
I would tell my tour groups that the lesson is that there are two ways to reconcile our differences, either with violent action or peaceful debate. I could never imagine that on a day in 2021, Americans would choose the former. I would bring my guests to the visitors gallery above the House floor and talk about what has happened there every two years since 1858. Lawmakers raise their hands and take the oath to protect and defend the Constitution. Never did I imagine police there with their guns drawn or a president violating that oath by inciting a mob to attack the Capitol.
Then I would take them to a circular room just off the rotunda dimly lit by a chandelier. The granite walls are unadorned. They capture the austerity of the building. I would ask my constituents to put their hands on those rough walls and ask them to consider that one day in the past, Abraham Lincoln placed his hands on those stones as a member of Congress.
The thing about the Capitol is that it is not just granite and marble. You can feel the history of the place. You can hear the echoes of the debates and sense the passions baked into the walls over two centuries. You know that in its rooms there were moments when our democracy came close to breaking. But the building stayed resilient. It was almost burned down and then it was restored. It was used as a makeshift hospital for Union Army soldiers and then used to rebuild the country after the Civil War.
The attack on the Capitol did not burn it down as in 1815, but democracy was in flames fueled by a president consumed by power. The tear gas has faded and broken windows will be replaced. But the wounds to the spirit of the place are lasting. The blood on the steps in 1815 are joined by scars left by a violent insurrection in 2021. The portrait of the Capitol in flames tells the story of the first, but not the only, invasion of the building. It will need repair. But how do we rebuild our democracy based on a foundation of decency and civil discourse? That is the issue of our times.
Steve Israel represented New York in the House over eight terms and was chairman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can follow his updates @RepSteveIsrael.
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