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Why we must resist calls to limit access to the US Capitol

Why we must resist calls to limit access to the US Capitol
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Top law enforcement officials recently called for permanent fencing as a razor wire-topped steel fence erected in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection walls off the Capitol from the public.

The U.S. Capitol Historical Society (USCHS) does not weigh the merits of specific security technologies. But we have an important perspective on the values and ideals that guided America’s response to past assaults on our Capitol. Sadly, we’ve been here before, and understanding where we’ve been helps inform where we must go.

Most people are familiar with the history of the British ransacking of Washington, D.C. in 1814. But many may be surprised to learn that there were no fewer than five notable attacks on the Capitol in the 20th century. The tragic events of Jan. 6, 2021 are just the latest episode. 

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Quite understandably, after every historical attack there have been immediate, instinctual reactions to implement extreme countermeasures. But reactions are not strategies, and in every instance, Congress ultimately decided that its responsibility was to safeguard something more important than the 16.5-acre complex. The U.S. Capitol is not just an office building but the very embodiment of our democracy.

The 1915 Senate bombing by a German nationalist; the 1954 shooting of five members on the House floor by Puerto Rican nationalists; the 1971 Weather Underground Senate bombing; the 1983 Resistance Conspiracy bombing of Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-W.V.) Capitol office; and the 1998 killings of U.S. Capitol Police Officer Chestnut and Detective Gibson were each serious acts of terrorism. In response to each tragedy, proposals sought to limit public access — from a bulletproof barrier between the chamber galleries and floors to an outright closure of the building.

What is common to each response is that Congress, in the end, found a solution to enhance security without diminishing the openness and accessibility of the Capitol, which so beautifully represents the openness of our society.

Many members of Congress spoke eloquently about why this was so. “It would be a pity…to diminish the freedom with which Americans have always gained access to the Halls of Congress,” Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.) declared in the wake of the 1954 shooting. “Indignation over the occurrence should not breed intemperance or vindictiveness.” In 1998, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) echoed that sentiment. While his July 27, 1998 remarks are too lengthy to share in full, I encourage everyone to read them here.

Powell and Lott understood why some sought to make the Capitol “impregnable.” Lott, marveling at how everyday people would wait to see if they really could meet him as he stepped from his office in the Capitol, and how Americans and foreigners alike were amazed to see him, exhorted his fellow senators to remember that the “people's access to their Capitol is the physical manifestation of democracy. It represents something rare and precious, something all Americans take for granted. It represents the bond between those in high office and those who put them there. It represents, in short, our freedom.”

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In the days to come, there will surely be more calls to lock-up the Capitol as tightly as possible. It is an easy, obvious and wrong solution risking a dire outcome. If our only obligation were to protect the physical property and assure the safety of those who work within the building, it would be a relatively simple task. But if we seal off the Capitol from the public, the ideals that animate the mission of all who work and have worked within it will be lost. If you believe that part of what ails American politics is people feeling like government is out of touch, imagine what throwing up a permanent wall that leaves the American people on the outside looking in will get us.

American democracy only works if it's a participatory sport. If we further separate the people from our representatives with physical barriers, the whole experiment fails. Our government of the people, by the people and for the people starts being a little less so with every measure that distances Americans from their representative government.

I have faith that our leaders today, just as those who came before them, will look to history and reach solutions that safeguard not only the Capitol and those who toil in its halls but also its symbolic power as the physical manifestation of the American experiment. 

Jane L. Campbell is president and CEO of the United States Capitol Historical Society, a former Senate chief of staff and committee staff director, and the former and first woman mayor of Cleveland, Ohio.