For all the recent invective about the deteriorating quality of our democracy and alleged government abuses, no questions were raised about the possibility of a police-led putsch in the Rayburn House Office Building last Friday [May 26, 2006].
We’ve all witnessed the expressed concerns regarding the possibility of abuse in several government programs, coming mostly—though not exclusively—from the political enemies of those in the executive branch. But such questioners of governmental integrity were oddly silent during Friday’s drama at the Rayburn, an event which, judging by appearances, could easily have been mistaken for the genesis of a coup d’etat—the ultimate government abuse.
That the word “coup” was not on the lips of journalists and pundits on Friday reveals much about the level of real trust that we have in our government, and it devalues the in-vogue and occasionally silly prophesies of eminent Orwellian rule. Furthermore, Friday served as a reminder of the extent to which our institutions, both in the public and private sectors, have yielded tremendous political stability.
My wife of one year works in the Rayburn Building. Upon hearing from her Friday morning, she told me that she and her colleagues were ordered by the Capitol Police to remain in their office—shades drawn, doors closed. I was assured that she would call back when she knew more, as I began what would be approximately five hours of constant media absorption, waiting for any news or developments that would end the lockdown.
Of all the studio and press conference questions that I heard repeated by journalists throughout Friday’s coverage, none addressed possible abuse by the authorities on the scene. The most prevalent, and sometimes condescending, questions referred to the Capitol Police’s indoor firing range, which apparently is located deep in the bowels of the Rayburn Building, not far from the scene of the reported gunshots in the parking garage. “What about the firing range?” “Is it possible that sounds from the firing range could have been the cause of this?” “Can you verify if the firing range was open at the time of the alleged gunshots in the parking garage?”
Aside from live views of the Capitol dome and intermittent satellite images revealing Rayburn’s proximity to the Capitol Building, most visual coverage showed something that could legitimately make a citizen of just about any other country in the world feel more than a little uneasy: an important government building surrounded by hundreds of armed police personnel, tactical SWAT team members, federal agents, even medical personnel. These militarized people were often seen in groups, discussing plans as they pointed in various directions and showed tremendous organization and discipline. Most donned tactical gear such as helmets, Kevlar vests, ammunition belts, handgun holsters, and a whole range of communications equipment. And who could forget the weapons they wielded? Shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, even a few sniper rifles.
As I watched, I received several calls from my wife explaining that she still could not leave her office, that the entire building was in “lockdown” mode and very few people were allowed even to go to the bathroom. Eventually, she and her colleagues were sequestered with many others in a cafeteria, not knowing for how long they would have to remain there. I wasn’t the only one outside of Rayburn to know about these events; such information was relayed to the media, and consequently the general public.
And yet, after witnessing all of this, the line of questioning throughout the day’s episode hardly changed. “Do you have any more information about the firing range?” “Is it possible that the firing range is the source of the alleged gunpowder scent?”
No one thought to mention what would be on the minds of much of the world’s population if they witnessed their sensitive government buildings under the forceful control of a heavily-armed and well-organized police or military cadre, who would not allow the staff and bureaucrats to leave the building, or even remain at their desks where they could receive outside information. In places of the world where transparency, accountability, representation, or civic virtue are thin, such a scenario would elicit justified fears of that age-old destabilizer, the coup d’etat.
Our system of governance, while by no means perfect, has worked relatively well for so long that we now have the good fortune of taking its stability for granted. Some historians or political scientists might dismiss this as naiveté, and perhaps they are wise to remind us of the perils that have long plagued governments.
For me, however, knowing that my wife and our soon-to-be-born first child were somewhere in that building under the control of well-armed people whom I’ve never met, I trusted in a safe outcome—and felt utter amazement at the historic conditions that let me do so, humbly thinking of all of the correctly-ordered elements (rule of law, separation of powers, our bill of rights, a free marketplace of ideas and products, to name only a few) which allowed me to arrive at that trust.
That it does not occur to the vast majority of journalists and bloggers that something fishy might be afoot at the capitol Friday says as much about the state of our democracy as it does about those who hype its decay: The level of public trust in our 230-year-old constitutional republic, an institution of citizens rather than apparatchiks, is relatively high. While those who continually forecast doom based on fear of abuse of the Patriot Act, tightened border control, or the misnomer “domestic spying” failed to notice the potential gravity of Friday’s events were ours the corrupt government that they claim it to be.
Meanwhile, the inquiries haven’t changed: “Is there adequate soundproofing material inside the firing range?”
—Jay Gress is a graduate student of national security at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C.