As you awake this morning, your federal lawmakers have returned to work full time, as the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. is scheduled to reopen. What I want to know is why they shut down in the first place.
It is the policy of the U.S. government, as it is with most nations of the world, not to negotiate with terrorists. The reason being if you can force the hand of a country to give into the demands of people who operate with no regard for law or life, a government loses its credibility. What a terrorist group wants is to disrupt or destroy the processes of the organization they oppose. By stopping the legislature of the most powerful nation on Earth, the terrorists won. They won the battle on the front that they choose to fight, which isn’t combat, but attempting to destroy the psyche of the country they despise.
Anyone horrible enough to plant anthrax in letters sent to the U.S. Capitol and its leaders has no regard for human life or safety. But their goal is not to kill legislators and network anchormen (how many people in those positions actually answer their own mail?), but rather to scare and horrify the people who hear and read about what happened. To show the power they can wield over the normal, everyday lives of Americans. By shutting down the legislative process, Congress gave the terrorists exactly what they were looking for.
Another failure of our leaders was not showing a united front to the nation and the world. At one point the House of Representatives decided it would cease operations, but the Senate decided to continue business as usual. Different messages were being espoused from different leaders at the same time. Many politicians have never met a camera they didn’t like, but at times like this a simple “no comment” is called for until peers can be consulted so the same information can be disseminated by all. As Congress united for passage of the $40 billion package for relief and cleanup of Manhattan, they failed last week to show the unity necessary from elected officials in times of war.
Would keeping the Capitol open have been dangerous? Of course. The risks would be higher than normal to all people involved. But when things are reopened today, how much will be different? Is closing for less than a week a surefire way to make things safer for employees, tourists, and legislators alike? Probably not. After Sept. 11, any additional security measures needed to be taken should have been put into place, and if they weren’t that is a failure. The anthrax attack should have pointed out places where security measures need to be increased, but to stop the entire process of government in its most visible place is giving the enemy exactly what they want. Closing certain offices and chambers as needed while still allowing the process of governing to continue might have been a way to protect people involved, but shutting everything down simply sends the wrong message.
Very quickly after airlines were allowed to operate again following the attacks of that fateful day, Congressional leaders encouraged people to fly again. They asked Americans to continue their lives as normally as they could so we could show the world that the American way of life couldn’t be changed. Just over one month later, that same advice should have applied to the lives and work of our leaders.