Security On Capitol Hill Changes Over The Years
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Many years ago, members of the public could pretty much walk right into the United States Capitol. That has changed. Partly in response to security concerns, ordinary citizens now enter through a giant underground visitors center, after passing metal detectors well away from the building.
NPR's Cokie Roberts has covered Congress for many years and joins us most Mondays.
Cokie, good morning.
COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What are some past attacks and congressional responses here?
ROBERTS: Well, each one has had the effect of ratcheting up security up at the Capitol. I remember as a little girl, in 1954, when Puerto Rican nationalists got into the House chamber and started shooting and injured members of Congress, how terrifying that was. And that started to cordon off the galleries.
But every incident - there have been bombings in 1971; in 1983, a big bomb went off in the Senate corridor; and then, of course, the killing of the two police officers in 1998; and finally, September 11th and the anthrax incident.
And each one after each one, the Capitol has just gotten more and more and more secure, more of a bastion, harder for individuals to walk through and to really enjoy. But individual members of Congress, with the exception of members of the leadership, have not had security and that is something now that you're hearing a lot of talk about.
INSKEEP: Well, we just heard a congressman in Andrea Seabrook's report, just now, express concern about whether it was going to be harder for members of Congress to meet the public from now on.
ROBERTS: Well, the sergeant at arms is, today, briefing members of Congress about what they should do in terms of security. But look, Steve, if this shooter was alienated from government, and if alienation from government is, you know, what this is all about, nothing could alienate the public more than cutting off members of Congress from their constituents. I mean, usually this alienation has nothing to do with individual members; it has to do with institutions. And the more members interact with their voters and their constituents, the more - the better the view of government is. So if the effect is to cut members of Congress off, then this guy will have succeeded in heightening anti-government feeling.
INSKEEP: Now we should be clear, we don't know precisely the motives of the shooter. Everything we've heard about him makes him seem strange. We will learn more about him as the days go on. But the alienation that you talk about is widespread, and there's been a lot of talk in the last couple of days about the tone of political rhetoric, the nasty, bitter, or hostile tone of political rhetoric. Is that likely to change, Cokie Roberts?
ROBERTS: Well, certainly you've heard from Andrea and others, that the health care repeal debate that was scheduled for this week has been postponed. And when it actually does come to the floor, what will happen? Will people behave more civilly? Will it be a more measured debate? That will be something interesting to watch.
You know, there's this question now, of whether the people who have been calling for civility use this as an opportunity to actually be more civil, or whether they try to use this tragedy to score political points and ratchet up the tensions. We're already seeing some Democrats blaming Tea Partiers and Sarah Palin for the political environment that might have enflamed this shooter's passions. Republicans, on the other hand, say that the alleged shooter is just a crazy person who seems to have no fixed ideology.
You know, unfortunately Steve, what we've learned over the years is that changing the tone has a tendency to last a lot shorter period of time than security measures, which last a lot longer.
INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. That's NPR's Cokie Roberts, who joins us with analysis most Mondays.
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