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

But it would hurt our democracy and divert attention and resources from more effective improvements.

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.

Fixing these operational problems doesn’t require permanent fencing. But fencing is exactly the kind of security theater the country has repeatedly chosen in the decades after 9/11. As the repeated breaches of the White House grounds show, fencing alone is not an effective deterrent to a determined intruder. It also won’t deter a mob of the size that gathered on January 6, unless we are willing to turn the Capitol into Fort Knox. If it takes an army to repel a mob, it’s best to call the Army. That’s what the National Guard is for.

In fact, the speed with which the National Guard was able to erect temporary fencing after January 6 suggests that temporary measures can be employed quickly when necessary. The real security solution is to improve the operational and tactical capabilities of the relevant departments, do a better job of surveilling groups that chatter online about breaching federal buildings, and focus the mission of specialized agencies such as the Capitol Police.

January 6 was a good reminder of why security in federal installations is necessary. There are among us those who hope to use violence to achieve political ends. Meeting those threats requires a confident security posture, agile intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and clear missions and lines of authority. Congress has already spent billions on hardened buildings and bollards and security cameras, but no measure is adequate when its leadership is not attuned to the underlying problems. Permanent fencing would do a little more than further alienate citizens from their government while providing no meaningful security for the Capitol grounds. And it will send an unmistakable message to bad actors: We fear you, and if you push on us hard enough, you will win.

Arthur Rizer is vice president of technology, criminal justice and civil liberties at the Lincoln Network and an adjunct professor of law at George Mason University Law. He is a former Army officer, police officer and federal prosecutor. Daniel Schuman is policy director at Demand Progress Education Fund.