U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell
U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell wipes his eye as he testifies during a House select committee hearing on the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 27, 2021. (Oliver Contreras/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

Watching and hearing U.S. Capitol Police officers describe the events of January 6 brought back memories from 50 years ago, when I served on the Capitol Police force, and one of my fellow officers said he’d “die for this building.”

I know that historic building well. In the spring of 1971, just back from two years in the Peace Corps, l worked in a senator’s office in the morning, then donned my uniform and .38 police special at 3 p.m. to guard the Capitol. It was a patronage position, with dual responsibilities, that others like former Senate leader Harry Reid held back in those days.

I was never more proud than I was on Tuesday to serve on that force.

I went on to other Capitol roles, including top aide to the Speaker of the House, in the years ahead. Holding every one of these jobs was an honor.

The videos and sounds and the eyewitness sworn testimony brought it all back.

What struck me again was the clarity of the call to duty expressed by each of the four witnesses: Private First Class Harry Dunn and Sgt. Aquilino Gonell of the Capitol Police, and officers Michael Fanone and Daniel Hodges of D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department.

They knew the stakes. Their emotions brought powerful evidence of their commitment. Better than any elected official, they drew the patriotic line between the defenders of democracy and its despoilers.

We held an election in November 2020. Donald Trump got 74 million votes and Joe Biden earned 81 million, or 7 million more than Trump. Biden won with 306 electoral votes, two more than Trump won the presidency in 2016. This time Trump got 232 electoral votes, or 74 electoral votes fewer than Biden. The January 5 rioters stormed the Capitol to keep these electoral votes from being tallied by the Congress in accordance with the Constitution.

Before the Capitol insurrection, Trump told his followers that Vice President Mike Pence had the power to overturn the election. He said it was up to Pence whether Biden got certified or not, and whether he, Trump, got a second four years as president.

That was the day’s first Big Lie, the absurd delusion that brought desecration to Washington on a day designated to perform a reaffirming ritual of our established democracy. People died as a result—four if you weigh the cause of death conservatively, seven if you don’t. Two of the seven were Capitol Police officers.

I’ve always been proud, along with other Americans, that we’ve been holding elections since our constitutional beginnings. Every two years we’ve picked people to send to the Capitol. Every four years we’ve picked our president.

I don’t fear for our democracy in the short run, but the trendline worries me. Who of my generation can imagine a mob storming through the Capitol when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, or JFK, or Ronald Reagan? Who can imagine a president actually urging that mob on?

And consider where we are heading. Trump still tells his people he won. They believe him. Trump predicts he’ll be “reinstated” by August 1, and three out of ten Republicans say he’s right. A former Army general calls openly for a military coup and it isn’t big enough news to make the Sunday talk shows.

Like so many hundreds of millions of Americans, I took the Jan. 6 insurrection personally.  It wasn’t just because of my years serving the country in those hallowed halls. It was also because of what I witnessed in my later years as a journalist, how I saw people around the world fighting for what we have, and perhaps take for granted.

In covering the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, I met people demanding free self-government in Hungary and then in Germany. As the Berlin Wall was coming down, I heard an East German  nurse tell me that it wasn’t a question of socialism or capitalism. It was about who got to choose. She wanted free elections so that the people could decide the question.

Five years later I was in South Africa and the fall of apartheid with the first all-race elections. Nelson Mandela refused to leave prison, even after 28 years, until there were elections and his political party could participate.

Four years after that, I witnessed Protestants and Catholics end sectarian violence and decide Northern Ireland’s future based on the vote of the people.

In all these cases, we saw men and women stick their necks out for the basic principle that their country should be ruled by majority vote. Many risked their lives for this principle.

On Jan. 6, the Capitol Police took their place in those honored ranks. They, too, are heroes. What keeps me awake at night is that they had to be.

Chris Matthews

Chris Matthews has worked as a political aide, author, broadcast host, and journalist. He is the author of This Country: My Life in Politics and History and Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.