Over the course of my long life, starting as a 20-year-old college intern, I have called the United States Capitol my workplace many times and over many years – more than two decades, altogether. As I would walk to or from my office in one of the nearby House office buildings, I never failed to glance at the Capitol’s ornate, brilliant white dome and be awed by its majesty and symbolism. Like the Maine State House, when the Legislature is in session, the beacon on the dome’s top is lit. It was enough to give me goosebumps. Inside, every floor, every wall and every ceiling is a thing of beauty, crafted over many centuries by skilled workers from around the world. It is breathtaking.

Andy Kim

Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., cleans up debris and personal belongings strewn across the floor of the Rotunda early on the morning of Jan. 7, hours after protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

On 9/11, when word spread that a fourth plane had been downed in the fields of Pennsylvania, some speculated that the intended destination might have been the White House, but I never doubted that it was the Capitol. From the air, it was unmistakable. Its destruction would be a body blow to our country. Until we knew that all the terrorist-controlled planes were no longer in the air, I feared for my colleagues in Maine U.S. Rep. Tom Allen’s office. They had been told by ill-prepared Capitol Police to shelter in the courtyard of Tom’s office building, Longworth. That courtyard is surrounded by walls. They were sitting ducks. Tom had the sense to move his staff to his nearby basement apartment, a slightly less dangerous location. Meanwhile, I was glued to the TV in his Portland district office, watching the twin towers fall. Ironically, we were just a few miles from the airport where the chief conspirator had started his journey to lower Manhattan.

This history helps explain my conflicted feelings about the Capitol. I know it is a target. I know that the thousands of workers who toil there every day know this. But its majesty continues to spellbind me.

Before 9/11, members of Congress, staff, reporters and visitors were free to enter and exit the building at will. In the cold or rain, we would make our way to the Capitol or even Senate office buildings by following a warren of underground tunnels that twisted and turned without apparent reason, with no directional signs, but that we nevertheless learned to navigate. The tunnels were lit but barely wide enough for people to pass each other; the ceilings and walls were lined with pipes. Fresh paint kept the pathway relatively clean, but your breath could feel the dust and mold. It was medieval looking. A perfect place to plant a bomb, a possibility that occurred to no one in charge, nor to me. At the top of the building was another anomaly: Inside the dome was another, smaller dome, the first one. You could circle along a walkway on the smaller dome if a lawmaker took you up there. No police were there, either.

After Sept. 11, security was beefed up, but the plans were still full of holes. You could no longer park on the Capitol Plaza on the east side of the building, much to my annoyance. A few Capitol Police were stationed on the parameters to enforce those rules. Staffers and reporters had to display their picture badges, but as I recall, the badge exempted us from the metal detectors. Visitors had to enter through prescribed places, but the lightweight barriers to other entrances, like the ones the mob on Jan. 6 quickly tore down, were flimsy, intended to keep law-abiding people in line, not stop anyone intent on destruction.

I understood the need for these changes, but they deeply saddened me. It was one more sign that this was no longer really the People’s House. Unlike the White House or the courts, which had stricter security and even gunmen on their roofs, the Capitol and the House and Senate office buildings had embraced the right of ordinary people to watch their representatives at work. And the people sensed this.

The world has changed again. The Capitol will become more fortress-like. Those working there will feel more estranged from the people they serve. Add this to the list of anti-democratic measures that President Donald Trump has wrought.


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