On 6 January, Jackie Speier was one of scores of members of Congress threatened by the mob of violent Trump supporters and white supremacists who stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the results of the presidential election.
Along with her peers, she was told to wear a gas mask and ordered to lie prostrate on the marble floor as the baying crowd pounded on the chamber door and the sound of gunfire rent the air. The terror of that day induced in her a flashback, to the events that brought her into politics in the first place when she lay bleeding from five gunshot wounds in the Guyana jungle, not knowing whether she would live or die.
It was 18 November 1978, and she had travelled to Guyana as part of a congressional investigation into the Jonestown settlement and its cult leader, Jim Jones. The fact-finding group of 24 were ambushed by cult members on a jungle airstrip; the congressman for whom Speier then worked, Leo Ryan, and four others were murdered.
Speier, shot five times and left for dead, had to wait 22 hours for help to arrive. She told herself as she lay on the tarmac that if she survived the ordeal she would devote herself to public service.
That devotion, born of her bullet wounds, can be traced in a direct line from the Jonestown massacre, through the insurrection at the Capitol on 6 January, to her renewed efforts today to protect the United States from the threat of violent extremism. She is determined to strengthen safeguards against cults – whether of the Jonestown or Donald Trump variety and the white supremacist sedition he unleashed.
“Jim Jones was a religious cult leader, Donald Trump is a political cult leader,” Speier told the Guardian. “As a victim of violence and of a cult leader, I am sensitive to conduct that smacks of that. We have got to be wary of anyone who can have such control over people that they lose their ability to think independently.”
Speier stood for her first election soon after the Jonestown massacre. Since 2008 the Democratic congresswoman has represented most of the district in California that her gunned-down mentor, Ryan, served before his death.
The formative experience that gave rise to her political career gives Speier an unusually sharp perspective on the danger posed by the Capitol insurrection. She thinks of it as “groupthink”, saying that “when the groupthink is about overthrowing the government, then we’ve got a serious problem.”
Since 6 January, Speier has used her political muscle as a member of the House armed services and intelligence committees to press for urgent reforms designed to shore up protections against white supremacist and extremist violence. Last month she wrote to Joe Biden and his newly confirmed defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, calling for a “new sense of urgency” following the “appalling events at the Capitol”.
In her letter, Speier told the president and defense secretary that she had become “increasingly alarmed” about the connections between violent extremist groups and military personnel. She warned them that current efforts to contain the problem were “insufficient to the threat from these extremist movements”.
In her Guardian interview, Speier said that the current crisis of white supremacy and the military has been brewing for many years. “I thought it was urgent a year ago when I held a hearing on violent extremism in the military and was astonished at the number of service members who are recruited in part because of their training to these extremist groups.”
She added: “It’s not as though we haven’t been given a heads-up.”