WASHINGTON — A MADMAN's shots shattered the peace in the U.S. Capitol on Friday, killing two police officers, injuring a young woman and depriving the nation of its already tenuous sense of security.
Washington is America's most fortresslike city. Both the White House and Capitol sit like medieval castles surrounded by artificial moats of cement and metal. Virtually every government building and many private buildings feature metal detectors, surveillance cameras and armed guards posted at their entrances.
But for all the guards and steel and concrete, no building in the city is immune from what happened Friday. So long as one maniac is willing to risk his own life to try to kill others, no one is completely safe.
Sure, we could make the slow process of entering government buildings still more onerous by making everyone pass through bulletproof holding pens while their belongings were checked. The Israeli Embassy employs such a system. Every visitor passes individually through a Plexiglas enclosure while the person and his things are searched. But the Israeli Embassy is not a public building -- the Capitol, where thousands of visitors and workers enter each day, is.
Unless we are willing to deny ordinary citizens access to our most important government buildings, no security system similar to the Israelis would work in most federal buildings. Yet this latest tragedy no doubt will spawn new security measures aimed at preventing the same thing from ever happening again.
Giving up our freedom
But with every attempt to make life more secure, we give up a little more of our freedom to come and go as normal human beings. When I came to Washington 25 years ago, it was possible to enter most public buildings freely. There were no metal detectors, few guards to rummage through purses, no X-ray machines to photograph briefcases.
When I first started working on Capitol Hill in 1972, I could enter the Rayburn Building through a back door in the underground garage and wend my way unimpeded through the warren of underground corridors that connected both the House and Senate buildings to the Capitol itself. Today, only a few doors to ++ the outside remain open to Hill staff, and even fewer remain open to the public.
Most of the security measures in place around Washington were designed to stop terrorism. The barricades that block off Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House are supposed to foil a car bomber, as are similar barricades around the Capitol grounds. But it is exceedingly difficult to stop a lone man armed with a small weapon from penetrating at least the perimeter of any building.
We may never know what motivated Russell Weston Jr., the accused gunman, to rampage through the halls of Congress wreaking death and destruction. There have always been such men and women, although in recent years we have had fewer ways to protect ourselves from their rage. We no longer routinely confine such people to mental institutions. We protect the civil liberties of homicidal maniacs at the expense of our own, allowing violent psychotics to wander our streets while we erect metal detectors outside our public buildings.
Yet it is difficult to imagine any extra physical barriers that could have prevented Friday's attack. From all accounts, Capitol security worked as it was supposed to. The gunman walked through the metal detector setting off the alarm but fired his weapon into the back of Capitol Hill police officer Jacob Chestnut's head almost immediately. He managed to kill another officer, John Gibson, who confronted him in Majority Whip Tom DeLay's office before he was felled by bullets from Gibson's and other policemen's guns.
As horrible as the attack was, only one civilian was injured. Because of the quick action and incredible courage of the Capitol Hill police, what could have been a mass murder was averted.
In the end, only providence and the bravery of good men like officers Chestnut and Gibson can protect us from a lunatic's wrath.
Linda Chavez is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 7/29/98