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Opinion As tourists return to the Capitol that I guard, I’m reliving Jan. 6

Sgt. Aquilino Gonell of the Capitol Police testifies on July 27, 2021, before members of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE)
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Aquilino Gonell is a sergeant with the Capitol Police. The views expressed are his own.

“Tourists trying to get into the Capitol,” I tweeted on April 1, along with a picture of flag-waving rioters smashing their way inside 15 months earlier. Then I added, “April fools.”

It was a bad joke, parodying one congressman’s ridiculous statement that the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection was “a normal tourist visit.” But as a Capitol Police sergeant who was on the front lines that terrible day, I felt I’d earned the right to make it.

In fact, real tourists did come back on April 1. After being closed for two years during the pandemic, the Capitol Visitor Center has begun a gradual reopening. Although my job is still protecting the federal buildings and those who work there, now I can also, once again, greet people and help show them around.

The first week, when a few families and small groups were allowed in, I noticed an older woman staring as if she knew me. Suddenly, she approached with a big hug and said tearfully, “I’m so sorry for what you’ve been going through.” She had recognized my face from my appearance before the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack. She brought her relatives over to thank me.

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Later, when I’d stopped to answer a work-related text near the speaker’s office, another visitor tried discreetly to take my picture. When I acted as if I’d caught her at something, she froze and apologized, saying she, too, had recognized me. “No, I’m just busting your chops,” I said and laughed. I wound up posing for her, then volunteering to show her group some places beyond the Rotunda, the old Supreme Court chamber and other sites on the regular tour. I took them to the Capitol’s cornerstone, the Congressional Prayer Room and the chamber originally intended as George Washington’s tomb. At the Lower West Terrace, near where the presidential inauguration platform had stood on Jan. 6, I took a deep breath and said, “This is the tunnel you guys probably saw on TV, where I almost died fighting the mob.”

They asked if I’d been scared. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t,” I admitted.

It was the first time I’d stood on that spot since Jan. 6 — since returning to work, I’d used other entrances and exits just to avoid reliving what happened. Now I could almost hear the angry chants — Stop the steal! Fight for Trump! U.S.A.! … — as well as the screams of an injured fellow officer. In response to the group’s questions, I repeated some of the account I’d given to the House committee: How we were beaten, pulled, punched and blinded with eye-damaging lasers by savages wielding hammers, knives, batons, baseball bats, a flagpole, and pepper and bear spray. How I was crushed in the tunnel, hands bleeding and barely able to breathe — worse than anything I’d experienced during my military service in Iraq — and I thought: This is how I’m going to die, trampled while defending this entrance. I even showed the visitors where I’d undergone shoulder and foot surgeries because of that day’s injuries.

Remembering is hard — I still suffer flashbacks. But it’s also good to talk to people, to feel that ordinary Americans understand and care about what we did. It helps counter my disappointment in members of Congress who have falsely claimed that “there was no insurrection,” calling the rioters “peaceful patriots.” Those members are people I risked everything to defend.

And while all the visitors I’ve talked to seem respectful, I can’t help but wonder if any of them were part of the insurrection. Could they be coming back to relive their big moment and gloat over the chaos they caused? Do they look at me and think: That’s the Latino officer I shoved? I remain vigilant, keeping an eye out for anyone who seems to be bragging to their friends.

Some aspects of security have been tightened for the reopening. We no longer take walk-ins, for example; visitors have to make reservations through the visitors’ center or the offices of their representative or senator, and the size of some tour groups is limited. As before, visitors must submit to security screening, going through a metal detector and having their bags searched or X-rayed.

Still, it’s hard not to be paranoid. I never thought such an attack would happen. Now I’m afraid it could happen again.

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