Tear Down That Fence: Security Theater Won’t Protect The Capitol

In the aftermath of the January 6 storming of the Capitol, lawmakers are studying how to make sure that shameful event never recurs. One idea persists: Wall off Congress by erecting permanent fencing. The acting chief of the Capitol Police has called for such a barrier, and the union has endorsed a proposal from retired Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré that includes various options for fencing. A permanent fence around the Capitol is unnecessary, actively harmful to our democracy, and diverts attention away from more effective measures.

Maybe we can’t go back to the good old days when Washingtonians picnicked on the west front stairs or wandered into the building sans metal detectors. But kids should still be allowed to go sledding on snowy days, the public should still be able to go on tours, and advocates should still be able to bend the ears of their representatives in person. Visiting the seat of government should be as frictionless as possible. Allowing the U.S. Capitol to become a fortress would be a tremendous injury to democratic vitality and the nation’s reputation as a free and open democracy.

And a permanent fence would be mere security theater that would fix none of the actual problems we have. The failures on January 6 were the result of poor management, bad planning, and failed leadership at the top of the Capitol Police. Having thrown tons of money at the Capitol Police over the decades, we know that the problem is not funding, but leadership. 

The dramatic increases in funding for congressional security have been undercut by an expansion of the Capitol Police force’s mission. Capitol Police officers now spend an inordinate amount of time conducting local drug busts, policing vehicular traffic in the neighborhood, and even enforcing rules at Union Station, more than a half-mile away. This is an unnecessary expansion of the force’s jurisdiction that has stretched its capabilities and diverted it from its primary mission, protecting federal legislative buildings and members of Congress. These non-security policing responsibilities can easily be shifted to local and other federal law enforcement agencies, whose training is better suited to them anyway.

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