Sunday, February 11, 2024

Q&A with Jamie Stiehm




Jamie Stiehm is the author of the new book The War Within: What I Witnessed from Inside the Capitol on Jan. 6. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate, and has worked for a variety of news organizations, including The Baltimore Sun. She lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: How did this collection of your columns come into being?


A: I write a weekly column on national politics and history for Creators Syndicate. The CEO, Jack Newcombe, suggested publishing a book of Jan. 6 columns to my fine editor, Samantha Peloquin.


Jack’s idea went beyond an arc of justice or history. He felt I could bear witness to the personal experience inside the Capitol moment by moment, when the mob broke in, and later write analysis as the dust settled on that dark day. Not just the facts, ma’am, but feelings, too.


I’m grateful to have the short essays gathered together in The War Within as a whole, fitting like pieces of a puzzle on American democracy. One was written in Athens, the birthplace of democracy. 


Q: In the book’s introduction, you write of your experiences in the House chamber on Jan. 6, 2021, “In a flash came the first time in my life that I thought it was over. I always thought I'd live to be 100 like my great-grandfather, made of strong midwestern stock.” Can you say more about your thoughts at the time and the sense of danger you felt?


A: Once we heard gunshots in the Speaker’s Lobby, right outside the House chamber, once the air fogged with tear gas, then all bets were off. The locked doors of the House chamber felt inescapable, like an Edgar Allan Poe story, but nobody knew how it would end.


I felt a grim sense of dread cover me as a gun standoff took place through broken, jagged glass: “This might be it.” I’ve covered crime scenes in Baltimore as a reporter, ironically, but the first time I feared for my life was in the beloved Capitol under siege. 


Q: What do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about the events of Jan. 6?


A: People are not generally aware of the sheer size of the crowd that showed up that day on Donald Trump’s marching orders. Thirty thousand of his supporters came from all over the nation on the very day that Congress was scheduled to affirm the 2020 election result.


The date, Jan. 6, was no accident. It was Trump’s last best chance to overturn the election.


And make no mistake, the violence was real and the mob was armed. Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would have lost their lives if they were found.


The Capitol was sacked in 1814 by the British redcoats in uniform during wartime: that's legitimate. A ragtag band of Americans who attacked police officers in the worst political violence yet seen is not. The Metropolitan Police of D.C. sent 850 officers to the scene, but the Pentagon was AWOL while the Capitol was stormed. 


Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to the legal cases surrounding Jan. 6?


A: The Justice Dept. has charged up to 1,200 people who breached the Capitol, and I attended some trials.


In particular, I went to see Enrique Tarrio, the extremist Proud Boys leader, sentenced to 22 years. Stewart Rhodes, leader of the militant Oath Keepers, also received a long sentence. Seeing justice done in a federal courthouse near the Capitol gave one a sense of vindication. The systems works, but slowly.


However, one wonders why FBI intelligence failed so miserably on Jan. 6.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a book about Lucretia Mott, a Quaker abolitionist and women’s rights leader, whose Philadelphia home was (almost) burned by a mob. Also a play about Aaron Burr, an intriguing figure just as talented and important as Alexander Hamilton. I’m drawn to outsiders. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There’s something special about a book, after writing a thousand stories of journalism; it gives you a sense of a permanent place you can hold in your hands. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jamie Stiehm.

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