WASHINGTON - Members of Congress, forced to flee yesterday for the first time in history from the 200-year-old building that serves as a symbol of American democracy and freedom, were by turns stunned, angry, defiant and vowing revenge.
"America is forever changed; this is the second Pearl Harbor," Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, said moments after he and his colleagues were forced to evacuate the Capitol and adjoining office buildings.
Hagel described the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as particularly galling because those buildings stood as symbols of America's economic strength and military prowess.
"We are in a war here," he said. "And we're in for a very long siege against the scourge of our age: terrorism."
Congressional leaders of both parties, who were spirited off yesterday morning to a secret, secure location, returned last night to send a signal that they did not intend to be cowed by the attacks. About 150 of their colleagues assembled last night on the Capitol steps and applauded as the bipartisan leadership of Congress reappeared.
'We stand united'
"When people perpetrate acts against the country, we stand united," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "Senators and House members, Democrats and Republicans, stand shoulder to shoulder to make sure those who brought forth this evil deed will pay the price."
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle affirmed that sentiment: "As the representatives of the people, we are here to declare that our resolve has not been weakened by these horrific acts."
Following emergency procedures long in place but never used, the U.S. Capitol Police ordered the complex evacuated after two airplanes rammed into the World Trade Center; shortly afterward, another plane ripped into the Pentagon. Security officials told lawmakers later that they feared another plane might be headed toward the Capitol.
At first, many of the displaced lawmakers walked about the Capitol grounds in confusion, trying to figure out what was going on.
"This is just shocking, devastating, very disturbing," said Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Virginia Democrat. "The cell phones aren't even working."
As the horror of the attacks began to sink in, many lawmakers said many of the fundamental features of American life - such as the relatively easy access to airports and other public buildings - might have to be re-evaluated in light of the heightened security threat.
"We've known for a long time that it was not a matter of if an attack like this might happen, but when," said Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican. "We all know that the oceans can no longer protect us."
But Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cautioned against an overreaction.
"This is a terrible event," he said. "But it is not the end of anything. It is not the end of our way of life, or the way we function or of our civil liberties. There is no need for us to close schools across America.
"They win," Biden said of the terrorists, "when we change the way we function."
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, sounded a rare note of criticism of the U.S. government, complaining that the terrorists were able to strike without warning.
"This is not just a day of infamy; this is a day of outrage," he said, calling for the firing of intelligence officials who had "utterly failed" to do their jobs.
Other lawmakers were more sympathetic about how hard it is to detect and prevent such suicide attacks.
"I don't think you can guard against this sort of thing," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr., a Virginia Democrat. "This was very well-coordinated. Our attitude will be forever changed."
Lawmakers said they were determined to take whatever action is required to retaliate against those involved in the attacks and prevent them in the future.
"We're going to try everything we can to destroy them," said Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican. "This is not going to be easy. Obviously, we have to reassess how we are spending our defense money."
Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, agreed with DeWine that the United States needs to spend more on what Graham called "old-fashioned spies."
'Open for business'
As the day wore on, the legislators became more and more resolved that they needed to return to work as quickly as possible.
Lawmakers decided to proclaim to the reporters and camera crews staked outside that they were in session - even though they were not in the Capitol.
"As you can see," said Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat, "Congress is open for business."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun