Capitol defenders tell the wrenching truth

The first Jan. 6 House committee hearing exposes the ignominy of what Republicans have whitewashed.

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U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell wipes his eyes as he testifies during the House select committee hearing on the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Harnik Andrew/Pool/ABACA

As anyone who lived through it can tell you, the scars of 9/11 do not fade with time. Twenty years later, I’m still angry and heartbroken over what happened that day, changed forever by what I saw. When I close my eyes and imagine the New York City skyline I called my home, I still see the Twin Towers. I still can’t believe it was real.

Unlike 9/11, which I watched from the streets of New York, I watched the horrific events of Jan. 6, 2021, on television, in real-time. It was shocking and sickening then, but on Tuesday, listening to four members of U.S. law enforcement describe first-hand to a House committee what happened on that day, I still can’t believe it was real.

And that, unlike 9/11, Americans did this to America.

But not only was it very real, it was, inexplicably, even worse than we knew.

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It was hard to watch and listen to. Here were four uniformed heroes, choking back tears, explaining in graphic and emotional detail what they went through as they confronted a mob of violent insurrectionists hell-bent on harming them and the people in the building they were defending.

They spoke of screaming for help. They spoke of preparing to die, to never see their children again. They spoke of dealing with the long-lasting medical and psychological effects of the violence.

They compared what they had seen fighting in actual wars, and, unimaginably, found what happened at the Capitol was worse.

Officer Harry Dunn described it as “the saddest day” he’s ever experienced, of being called an N-word more than once, something that had never happened to him while wearing a uniform.

Officer Michael Fanone described the moment he thought he might be killed by insurrectionists: “I appealed to any humanity they had. I said as loud as I could manage, ‘I’ve got kids.’”

Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, emotional and angry, described the “audacity” of insurrectionists saying that he, “an Army veteran and police officer, should be executed.”

Officer Daniel Hodges described the harrowing moment a rioter told him, “You will die on your knees.”

They described in every detail the motives and demands of the people who attacked them that day: the Trump and Gadsden (”Don’t Tread On Me”) flags; the right-wing, white pride and Christian insignia; the pro-Trump chants; the unambiguous calls for Trump’s reinstatement. As Gonell testified, rioters yelled, “Trump sent us. Pick the right side. We want Trump.”

As if going through all of that trauma, wrought upon them by American citizens, and at the very Citadel of American democracy, wasn’t bad enough, they each described the final indignity: being told by certain members of Congress that what they experienced wasn’t real, wasn’t that bad; that the people who tried to kill them that day were just “tourists,” or Democrats; that they were the ones who were traitors.

“I went to hell and back to protect the people in this room,” said a visibly angered Fanone. “But too many people are telling me that hell doesn’t exist, or hell isn’t that bad.”

When asked by Rep. Liz Cheney, one of only two Republicans seated on the panel, what he thought when he heard former President Trump describe the insurrectionists as “loving,” Gonell was pointed: “It was upsetting, and a pathetic excuse for his behavior for something that he himself helped to create.”

What was so powerful about the testimony of these four officers, all of whom described their immense love of country, was how obviously heartbroken and angry they were to be betrayed in this way, and by the very Americans they vowed to protect, from the mob, to members of Congress, to the president.

That betrayal is unambiguous, and likely why most Republicans, including Trump and his cowardly lackey House Minority Speaker Kevin McCarthy, did not want this hearing to occur.

These four heroes put into stark relief the undeniable reality of that day: that a violent mob attacked America itself, because President Trump told them to.

Republicans have cravenly chosen to lie about and defend this. House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, herself chosen to replace Cheney because Cheney was being too honest about the insurrection, pre-butted the testimony Tuesday by saying: “The American people deserve to know the truth, that Nancy Pelosi bears responsibility, as speaker of the House, for the tragedy that occurred on Jan. 6.”

Shameless. Disgusting. Sickening.

And yet Stefanik’s cheap tricks are just another awful betrayal of American law enforcement officers who risked everything to defend a country they falsely assumed was better than this.

S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN.

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