In remembrance: How tragic events leave lasting impressions within the Capitol

On the first floor of the east front of the Capitol Building, next to what used to be called the Document Room Door, hangs a plaque honoring two slain U.S. Capitol Police officers.

Detective John Gibson and Officer Jacob Chestnut were killed in the line of duty on July 24, 1998, when a suspect entered the Capitol building and opened fire. Gibson wounded the suspect, ending what could have been an even greater tragedy.

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A year later, Congress honored the fallen heroes, renaming the Document Room Door — where the officers were posted and the suspect entered the building — as the Memorial Door.

According to Senate Historian Don Ritchie, it isn’t unusual for Congress to memorialize such traumatic events.

“They’ve certainly done things to put up plaques, to put names on doors, to do things to remember,” he said. “The Congressional Record is full of tributes and memorials and reminiscences of things like that.”

But which events, and how Congress chooses to commemorate them, is tougher to pin down.

According to House Associate Historian Ken Kato, a significant factor in determining how, and if, people are honored is lawmaker tenacity. 

“When it comes to members themselves, it would probably have to be whether or not there are people who are really going to be persistent and push it,” he explained.

But the constant push and pull of partisan negotiating in Congress can make even a straightforward issue like honoring those affected by tragedy tough going.

Even the naming of a room in the Capitol Visitor Center after congressional staffer Gabe Zimmerman, who was killed in the Arizona shooting last January that wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and took the lives of six people, was not immune.

Though the measure eventually garnered unanimous support, it was beset by delays in committee and in House leadership as other alternatives were proposed and eventually discarded.

Sponsor Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a close friend of Giffords’s, expressed frustration with the delay at the time.

“Hell, yes, I’m looking to push it forward,” she said last fall. The resolution was passed in December.

A year after the Arizona shootings, some in Congress expressed concern that the events of that day had already begun to fade from people’s minds.

Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer told The Hill earlier this month that in some respects, Congress has returned to business as usual.

“The further you get away from an event, people have a tendency to begin forgetting about the significance,” he said.

But the events of that tragic day in Arizona took center stage again last week when Giffords announced her departure from Congress to focus on her recovery. On her final day in the House, her colleagues showered her with well-wishes and speeches expressing gratitude for her service.

“Gabby, America thanks you,” Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on the House floor. “It thanks you for the example that you have given of overcoming adversity, and doing so with a spirit unparalleled. God bless you, and godspeed.”

But when asked if Congress would commemorate the Arizona shooting and its victims, Kato said it wasn’t a sure bet.

“At least in terms of the past, I don’t get a sense that that’s something that would be in the works,” he said. “I don’t know of any House-led memorial, and this one would be harder because we’re talking about someone whose career may not be finished.

“This event didn’t happen in the Capitol,” Kato said. “From looking through the files, I don’t have a sense that an event like this would be commemorated in any physical sense.”

Kato’s prediction so far proves accurate. Staffers with House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) and Wasserman Schultz’s offices said they were unaware of any plans in the works to commemorate the Arizona tragedy.

That doesn’t mean, however, that lawmakers would not support such a measure.

“I would certainly be someone that would favor doing anything that we can to remind people of not only the tragedy that occurred here, but to remind them how important our rights and free speech are,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said.

Giffords “is a precious, decent human being that exemplifies the kind of heart and attitude people should have in coming to this place,” he said. “She is an example to all of us that life is very delicate, and yet even in the worst of circumstances, she proves that the human spirit can transcend almost anything.”

Though he was unaware of any commemorative plans in the works, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) also expressed his support for such an endeavor.

“I would be very open to the idea of something like a congressional endowment for fellows to come to work on the Hill,” he said. “That would be kind of an appropriate way to honor Gabby as well as Gabe, for communications or for clean energy — the kind of things that she worked on.”

 Kato noted it was a unique and creative proposal but that funding for it would likely not come from Congress.

“That would probably be something in terms of contributions, as opposed to a congressional appropriation,” he said.

Even if the events of that day last January, which left 13 people wounded, are not commemorated with a statue or plaque, their impact could be seen in other, unexpected ways.

“Sometimes there are repercussions from those events that you can see in the practices around here,” Ritchie said, citing changes in security protocol after the 1983 Capitol bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

According to Ritchie, the 1998 Capitol shooting led not only to the renaming of a door, but also to the expanding of the building itself.

“That helped to galvanize support for building the Capitol Visitor Center,” he said. “Up until then, Congress was very reluctant to spend money on themselves … but then they realized that the Visitor Center would also move the screening of those visitors a block away from the Capitol rather than literally inside the Capitol, the way it was at that time.”

And while no specific plans to commemorate the Tucson shooting and its victims have yet been put forward, that doesn’t mean they won’t be.

“I would predict that there will be many such ideas and such thoughts of trying to honor [Giffords], and I would certainly be among the first to support any appropriate effort in that direction,” Franks said.