The January 6, 2020 assault on the Capitol was one of the gravest in the institution’s history. Not since the War of 1812 has the Capitol Building been overrun and degraded. Threats to Congress are neither new nor are they an artifact of 18th or 19th century America; threats are as enduring as the institution itself. But Congress has always recovered, adapted, and persevered, even when facing the unimaginable.
In 1998, a gunman carried out a deadly attack, taking the life of two Capitol Police officers. Just a few years later, the Capitol was a target of the 9/11 hijackers, but fortunately, they were thwarted. Just a month later, two Senate offices were mailed anthrax spores, sickening several Senate staff and killing two postal workers. Three years after that, the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was mailed powdered ricin, a deadly poison.
Each of these events, in their own way, shook those who work in Congress. Representative democracy is resilient, but it is meant to be carried out free from threats. When the unthinkable happens, our elected leaders and the staff who support them cannot retreat.
Several Bipartisan Policy Center staff served on Capitol Hill during these challenging moments. Here they reflect on their experiences and share what helped them come back and carry out the American people’s business.
“The 1998 attack took place in July. That was the first time that I personally experienced that you were not always safe on the Hill like you would have thought, with all the security that I thought existed. Even when you had security at all the doors, you were still at risk of unhinged individuals. It was controlled rather quickly, yet unfortunately still resulted in the death of two officers. The healing part of it came about with the two officers lying in state in the Rotunda.” Bill Hoagland, Director, Senate Budget Committee
“I was in the Hart Senate Office Building at the time of the shooting. We heard of an incident happening, but there wasn’t the same type of communication that there is now. There was a lot of uncertainty. We watched the television to see what was happening 300 yards away in the Capitol Building.” Franz Wuermannsdobler, Legislative Assistant, Senator Robert Byrd
“I recall with the shooting we actually had one of our legislative correspondents who happened to be giving a tour in the Capitol very nearby at that point and heard and saw the shots and was obviously very much affected by that. Not only were we working on the Capitol grounds, but then to have someone who was so close to us be so close to what happened and thinking about how it could have gone differently. We could have even lost someone who worked in our very office.” John Richter, Special Assistant and Speechwriter, Senator Olympia Snowe
“I had experienced previous periodic evacuations because of suspicious packages and similar false alarms, but I had not felt unsafe until American Airlines flight 77 hit the Pentagon. At that point, following a panicked call from my mother, I gathered up a few things and corralled some younger staff and joined hundreds of our colleagues streaming out of the building. Unfortunately, in my subsequent six years with the committee, I never quite got back to feeling 100 percent safe.” Michele Nellenbach, Director, Strategic Initiatives and former Senior Professional Staff Member, Senate EPW Committee
“I was a senior economist on the Congressional Joint Economic Committee around the time of 9/11. My office was in the Longworth House Office Building on the 5th floor and I had a window that looked right out on the US Capitol. I was watching CNBC market news when the second plane hits the South Tower, and you can see this is not a Cessna, it’s a real plane. It’s a passenger plane. You just realized at that point in time that it was a terrorist attack. As soon as that other plane hits the Pentagon, the Capitol complex goes nuts. Alarms started going off and they evacuate the complex, and since I can see the Capitol, everyone starts running out – running towards us.” Jason Fichtner, Senior Economist, Congressional Joint Economic Committee
“We left on Monday October 15 knowing that anthrax-laden letters had been sent to Sen. Daschle, but I don’t remember being concerned. It got very real on Tuesday morning when to my surprise, the Capitol Hill police stopped me from going into my office. Later that morning, our clerk announced that all of us who had been in Hart the previous day had to be tested for exposure. We stood in line outside one of the committee rooms waiting to be tested while reporters wandered the halls. Reporters were also on hand when we received our test results. I remember thinking how invasive it felt to have them there and surreal to be in a situation that would be of such interest to the world,” Nellenbach said.
“I, fortunately, was not exposed, though I do know staff that were exposed and some of them, to this day, have been affected by that exposure. That’s when things changed again because now all your mail was never going to come straight to your office. It changed the way we were able to communicate going forward,” Hoagland recalled.
“This was a different type of attack, and we didn’t know what to do with that: Are you in a safe space? Can you do your job? Essentially, they had to find space for a whole bunch of offices and committees which were originally in the Hart Building in order for people to function. After anthrax, we didn’t have a space set up for probably three to four weeks,” Wuerfmannsdobler said.
“And then for the anthrax attack, it was really a situation of ‘Here we go again, I can’t believe that something else is now happening.’ And having it be obviously such a different thing and not knowing where it was going to be coming next. You didn’t know what was going to be happening where, so it brought home the reality of working in a place that’s a target. You work long hours and it’s stressful work as it is, and to have that layered on top of it is not easy,” Richter reflected.
“These crises that we go through, if you know somebody, it really affects you. The important thing is to let them know that they are thought of. I’m not an emotional guy, but I do think it’s important to be able to call your friends, let them know you’re thinking about them. Ask if there is anything you can do. Of course, this just happened in the middle of a pandemic, and we have to maintain our social distance, but let them know that even in these times, we can give you a virtual hug. Keep going. You also get over it through your faith. When Sen. Ted Stevens’ airplane crashed with fellow staffers on board, I stopped at my little local church in the early afternoon by myself. You have to have faith that somehow we will get past these bad things and that life will go on,” said Hoagland.
“Each crisis certainly left a mark on the institution from the physical hardening to the new mail procedures, and for a short time, they brought the staff closer together. I do believe the crises left the institution more aware of its vulnerabilities and ultimately stronger. Hopefully when staff are able to return, they can find some goodwill in their common experiences,” Nellenbach shared.
“One thing that definitely stood out from my experience in 2001 was rallying together. The level of support, camaraderie, and patriotism. The bipartisanship that was there in working together to respond mattered. That was very evident for a number of months into 2001 and 2002. We’re all in this together. We are committed to doing our jobs, and this is for the benefit of the country. We found a way to put aside some of our differences for the betterment of the country. Those are things that I felt and felt helped me recommit to staying and working in Congress at that time. Hopefully, some of those same differences can be put aside as we address this whole question about the riots and the insurrection that happened on January 6,” said Wuerfmannsdobler.
“One of the things that made it easier to cope was we, at some point, came to work and started doing the work, supporting each other, and making sure we could talk things through. Information was transparent, people were talking to each other, comforting each other. That’s one of the things I would tell congressional staff today: don’t be afraid to talk about your feelings. The Capitol Hill community really is a community. It’s like a family. You get to know the Capitol Hill police, you know the Members who work with you, know the staff in the hallway with you, they become your friends and colleagues. And again, from the Bipartisan Policy Center standpoint, the time for bipartisanship is definitely now, both because of what’s going on politically, but also because of what’s going on in the Capitol. This is the time to come together and show some unity and be supportive of everybody,” Fichtner expressed.
“You’re not alone in terms of how you’re feeling. Others have gone through it, and many of your colleagues are feeling the same way. There’s no right or wrong way to react to it. I think everyone reacts to things like this differently. Some people want to just get right back to work to be distracted. Some people feel like they can’t do that, and it’s okay to take time. It’s okay to grieve what has been lost over the past week, and it is a loss. It’s alright to do that and to not feel totally alright,” Richter affirmed.
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