Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Burton's Wall

Indiana Congressman Dan Burton is continuing his 25-year battle to have a glass safety wall constructed in the House Chamber to separate the visitor gallery from the floor of the House.

My knee-jerk reaction was unfavorable. Just seemed to be another way to create a hermetically sealed elitist government. After reading Burton’s thinking, and the counter arguments, which are pretty weak, I have come to the conclusion that Burton is right.

First and foremost, we live in dangerous times. When the Capitol was built, the potential danger to legislators was single shot weapons of dubious accuracy. Hand explosives were possible, but not likely. A congressman of that era was more likely to be injured or killed by a colleague than a constituent.

Since the visitor gallery is only for guests to see and hear their legislators in action, the glass barrier makes no change in the relationship between the representative and the represented. There is no permissible communication from a gallery guest to the assembled legislators. When such communication does take place, the party is swiftly removed from the gallery, and occasionally arrested.

In 1954, the Ladies Gallery was used as a sniper perch, and five congressman were wounded in the ensuing gunfire. Capitol tour guides still point to a portion of splintered railing that was hit by one of the 30 rounds fired at the well of the House floor.

Burton worries that plastic explosives, other new technologies or a lapse in security might allow a bomber to sneak in. It would not take a professional baseball outfielder to make the toss to the speaker podium.

Burton notes that at least once a year, the entire United States government is assembled within shrapnel distance from each other. During the State of the Union address, and within 25 feet of the President, sit the Vice President, the Speaker of the House, the President Pro Tem of the Senate, the entire Supreme Court and most of the Cabinet.

I say “most” of the Cabinet because one member is taken to a secure hiding place just in case Burton’s worst fear were to happen – that by the action of one deranged individual or one motivated terrorist, the entire national leadership of the United States is wiped out in a nanosecond.

Now I figure, if prudence dictates that we hide away one of the Cabinet members as a safety measure, it makes even more sense to do everything possible to prevent such an attack in the first place.

The glass wall takes nothing way from the ability to view and hear the proceedings, but goes a long way in preventing what would be the worse attack on our seat of government since the British destroyed the city in 1812.

As public figures, members of Congress will always be individually at risk, as was so tragically demonstrated with the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords. We cannot fully protect against this risk without doing serious damage to our representative form of government. We must not isolate our public officials from the public. It is quite a different matter, however, to protect the assembled government in the performance of its duties. Burton’s wall is not to protect individual members of Congress, but to protect our very system of government.

To play on the words of President Reagan in Berlin, “Mr. Speaker, put up that wall!”

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