The acting chief of the Capitol Police, Yogananda Pittman, said on Thursday that Congress must build permanent fences around the Capitol. The impulse is understandable: Ms. Pittman got the job after her predecessor failed to stop the Jan. 6 attack on the building by supporters of former President Donald Trump. However, the proposal must be weighed against the public interest. There are important reasons to find other ways of protecting the Capitol.
Washington, D.C., is the seat and symbol of American democracy. Its great buildings, most of all the Capitol, are manifestations of the nation’s power and prosperity and of its peculiar form of government: of the people, by the people and for the people.
The Capitol complex is a place where Americans can go to watch their representatives, to speak with those representatives, to petition for the redress of grievances.
The building and its grounds also are part of the fabric of the city. Streams of bikers pass through on morning and evening commutes. Tourists gather for concerts on the lawn. When it snows, the front face of Capitol Hill becomes a popular sledding spot, with neighborhood children sometimes transforming discarded protest signs into makeshift sleds.
This is not just an amenity for neighbors and visitors. It is the tangible manifestation of the idea that the government is a part of American life, rather than something separate and apart.
In recent decades, while much of the federal government was encased in layers of security fencing, bollards and concrete barriers, Congress largely resisted the trend. The Capitol’s defenses were strengthened, but it remained possible for members of the public to walk the grounds and to pose for pictures on the front steps.
After the Jan. 6 attack, though, temporary fencing was hastily installed around the Capitol and the surrounding congressional office buildings — a tall black barrier topped with loops of razor wire and patrolled by armed troops. It has transformed the Capitol into a symbol of the nation’s fears.
The attack on the Capitol is sobering evidence of the need for stronger measures to protect members of Congress and the work of government. It cannot be dismissed as an aberration. But a permanent barrier is an inappropriate corrective.
The attack on the Capitol could have been prevented or mitigated in severity by the timely deployment of an adequate number of police officers and National Guard troops — in effect, a temporary barrier. Any similar threats in the future can and should be met in the same manner. The basic failure was one of policing. It was not a failure of architecture.
The poet Robert Frost had it right when he wrote, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out/And to whom I was like to give offense.” A wall would create a symbolic barrier between Congress and all of the American people, not just the minority that is unwilling to accept and obey the rules of the republic.
By taking down the temporary fencing around the Capitol as soon as possible, and by pursuing other measures to ensure the security of the building and all those who enter it, Congress can restore its full splendor as a symbol of American democracy.