When Pierre L’Enfant designed the city of Washington, he wanted the nation’s new capital to project an image of and facilitate democracy. That’s why at the intersection of the city’s four quadrants is the building that houses the most democratic branch of the federal government — not the White House or the Supreme Court, but the US Capitol. And over the years, L’Enfant’s vision became a reality: The city’s grand avenues with vistas of important government buildings helped residents and visitors alike reach their elected representatives with ease.
But in recent decades, and especially after the 9/11 attacks and the War on Terror, federal officials began to take more aggressive security measures that limited the city’s openness: Streets around the White House permanently closed, barricades popped up across the city’s core, and police presence became all the more visible. And yet despite these added security protocols — ones that Americans put up with in the name of public safety — the Capitol building and the grounds surrounding it remained, remarkably, open. Constituents could show up at a moment’s notice to confront their representatives, for example, and congressmen would often join protesters outside. Residents could also use the Capitol Grounds as the park they were intended to be and as a pedestrian walkway between the Capitol Hill neighborhood and the National Mall.
That has all changed since the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, which killed five people, including a police officer. What was once the citadel of American democracy became an impenetrable fortress, with troops from the National Guard protecting it and a 4-mile fence cutting it off from the public. And a new attack that left another Capitol Police officer dead last week has renewed calls for beefing up the security around the US Capitol. But while Capitol Police procedures evidently need to be overhauled to better protect the building and its staff, no new security measures should, under any circumstance, close off public access to the building. Doing so would be a loss for American democracy.
After the insurrection, the acting Capitol Police chief recommended implementing new protections, including building a permanent fence around the Capitol. That proposal justifiably received backlash, but after the recent attack, there were more calls for ramped up security, including from the Capitol Police union. But while the Capitol has shown itself to be vulnerable to deadly attacks in recent months, it is still one of the most heavily armored and secured buildings in the world.
The violence on Jan. 6 was not inevitable or the result of an under-policed space; it was, simply put, a law-enforcement failure. The insurrectionists were planning the attack weeks in advance, online and in broad daylight. And yet, despite the many warning signs, the police did not take the threat seriously or sufficiently prepare for a violent mob.
The Capitol Police have backtracked on the proposal of a permanent fence, but they are toying with the idea of a retractable one. While that seems like a reasonable request — a compromise that seems to have the backing of many lawmakers — retractable fences have a habit of staying up most days of the year in Washington. And ultimately, the public should not be punished by losing reliable access to the seat of American democracy for a failure on the part of intelligence agencies and law enforcement. (It’s also worth mentioning that the more recent attack happened while some of the fencing and barricades were still in place.)
A magnificent structure like the US Capitol does not merely serve the purpose of housing government business. It’s also a daily reminder for visitors and passersby of their own civic duties and the promise of democracy. Its welcoming nature encourages a more active and engaged citizenry, whether that comes in the form of protests, sitting in on sessions of Congress, or learning about the country’s history. That’s why it should look inviting and not menacing — lawmakers should not have an excuse to separate themselves from their constituents.
Of course, after an unfortunate pair of deadly attacks only a few months apart, it is certainly reasonable to say that current Capitol security measures are inadequate, and it’s especially understandable that police officers themselves want to ensure their colleagues’ safety as well as their own. But as both the Capitol Police and Congress mull over how to better protect the building, it bears repeating: The Capitol should never be cordoned off from the public. If lawmakers think otherwise, they would not only be rebuking L’Enfant’s vision for the city he built; they’d be forswearing the ideals of American democracy.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.