The bloodshed at the nation's Capitol last week was shocking. It further eroded America's fragile sense of security. Yet this wasn't the first incidence of violence there. Good people can only hope it will be the last, but there are no guarantees. Wherever there is public access, the tradeoff is a risk of violence.
The Capitol staff needs to minimize the likelihood of a tragic incident through effective security and contingency response plans. But they already had the right idea. Both of those factors were evident in the aftermath of the shooting. At this point, the biggest danger lies in the potential to overreact. The system worked well, despite the tragic deaths of officers Jacob J. Chestnut and John Gibson. Without their prompt, professional responses, the death toll would likely have been higher.Chestnut confronted accused killer Russell E. Weston Jr. at a metal detector near the building's entrance, where Weston pulled out a handgun and shot the officer in the head. There was no way anyone could have predicted this bizarre behavior.
Gibson responded heroically from down the hall, exchanging gunfire with Weston before both men fell. Other security personnel quickly converged on the scene, protecting visitors and workers, sealing off the building and treating the wounded. It appeared to be as good as public protection can get in such a terrifying situation.
Political response since has, fortunately, been reasonable. No cries for Capitol closure; no partisan finger pointing; only praise for two men who gave their lives in the line of duty, and a resolve to review procedures without shutting down access to the center of national government. That commitment to openness must remain firm.
Congress has discussed building an underground visitors center that would screen tourists before they enter the Capitol. Besides enhancing security, it would protect visitors from the weather and teach them the history of Congress and the storied building prior to their tours. The proposal, rejected in 1991 because of excessive costs, sounds like a good one that would lessen but still not eliminate all dangers.
In a free society, few if any places are immune to violence. But freedom is a far more precious com-mod-ity than any iron-clad guarantee against harm. Anyone who suggests the government should eliminate access to its buildings would be caving in to terrorists and sacrificing important liberties. Risks can be minimized, but they cannot be eliminated in an open society that emphasizes personal free-doms and open public interaction.