The United States Capitol complex is a series of buildings connected by open space. Anyone can walk west down East Capitol Street, past the Supreme Court to their right, and onto the plaza above the Capitol Visitor Center all the way up to the front steps of the building. In non-pandemic times, tourists can join a tour through the working seat of government in the middle of the day, or they can enter an office building to visit their member of Congress or senator. Credentialed media can enter through a metal detector at the entrance of the Capitol itself, walk up to any person they need to see—from a backbencher to Mitch McConnell—and badger them with questions about an environmental policy bill they’re working on or a tweet from the president of the United States calling his porn star ex-mistress “horseface.” It is an egalitarian, democratic space.
Or so it was until last week, when a mob of violent maniacs took advantage of poor public safety preparation ahead of a constitutionally mandated joint session of Congress and overran the building in a siege that led to five deaths, a number that could have been much higher.
I went to the Capitol on Tuesday for the first time since Wednesday’s insurrection to get a coronavirus test after being locked down in tight quarters with other media members. It is no longer an open space. The perimeter of the complex was sealed by barriers, in most spaces 7-foot nonscalable fencing and Jersey walls. The poor soul who inevitably has to remind me to flip around my ID badge when I try to enter is no longer a U.S. Capitol Police officer, but a member of the National Guard. They’re stationed every so many feet along the perimeter with others on patrol. Once inside the Capitol—granted, it was a slow morning—you were just as likely to see a police officer or member of the National Guard walking through the hallways as you were a staffer. Members will have to go through metal detectors to get on the House floor when they return for votes on Tuesday. (Expect significant griping.)
This level of security is appropriate, and were it in place last week, it would have protected the transfer-of-power ritual much more effectively than a minuscule number of cops overlooking a Maginot line of 4-foot-high bicycle racks did. But we’re not out of the woods yet. Law enforcement is tracking additional calls to arms from now through the inauguration, and who knows how far beyond. Capitol Police briefed Democrats on Monday about a slew of potential plots in the coming days including one, as HuffPost reported, that “would involve insurrectionists forming a perimeter around the Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court, and then blocking Democrats from entering the Capitol—perhaps even killing them—so that Republicans could take control of the government.” Members are more concerned than ever about their personal safety. For Republicans, specifically, it’s becoming less that they fear voting against Trump because of the threat of a primary challenger than because of the threat of physical harm.
Up to 15,000 National Guard members could be deployed for inauguration.
The new security perimeter is expected to be in place for “at least” 30 days. If, by the grace of God, the country is able to get through the inaugural and its immediate aftermath without any further political violence, sedition, or conspiracy, will the Capitol return to normal?
That’s a question that will track with the country’s ability to return to something within the same ballpark as normal. It will depend on whether those who resorted to violence and ransacking against the constitutional process are properly punished and disgraced, or whether they embolden new waves of people to substitute force for politicking. Restoring what’s become Fortress Capitol to the open, democratic people’s grounds will depend on the country’s own ability to defend democratic ideals.