Many years ago, I spent the summer between my junior and senior years of college as an intern in the Washington, D.C. office of U.S. Rep. Bill Goodling from York. I performed the mundane work of a Congressional intern, mostly drafting constituent letters, but I was also able to go to the floor of the House with the Congressman and experience first-hand how Congress operates.
A couple years later, my first real job after college was as an instructor with an organization that brought high school students to the nation’s capital for a week. The biggest part of their trip was the day spent on Capitol Hill. I played tour guide, taking students through the building, finding the spot in the old House Chamber where John Quincy Adams eavesdropped on his political opponents, using the tunnels to get around the Capitol Complex, and eating in the Congressional cafeteria.
A few years after that, I got a job as a staffer for U.S. Rep. John Murtha of Johnstown. With my staff badge I could access non-public rooms and hallways. One of the thrills of my life was to take a private tour of the Capitol dome with a member of Congress and stand on the outside balcony after climbing the narrow, hidden steps.
After nearly 10 years with Congressman Murtha I took a job as a government relations staffer with AARP. For the next 25 years, this involved a couple trips each year to meet with members of Congress in Washington, DC.
The openness of the Capitol Complex changed during the years I spent there. Beginning with 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, but especially after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, access to most of the Capitol Building was restricted.
No more solo rides on the Congressional Subway to the Capitol or the ability to casually view the artwork in the Rotunda without an escort. Still, the office buildings were open and constituents could visit the workplaces of their representative and senators.
During all those years, I was always in awe of the U.S. Capitol building and the history contained within it. The ordinary offices where the day-to-day work was done, the Committee hearing rooms, the ornate chambers of the House and Senate – this was where decisions, mundane and monumental, wise and foolish, had been made for more than 200 years.
Perhaps it is this personal history that makes the events of Jan. 6 so shocking and consequential to me.
It was appalling to see scenes of a mob strolling through the U.S. Capitol, unable to be contained by an expensive security detail revealed to be much more effective harassing tourists about bottles of water than actually protecting the building. These insurrectionists were people with no sense of history or morality – they were simply people with no sense.
But to say they do not reflect “America,” or “American Values” is wrong. Their viewpoint is shared by large swaths of those who live in the United States.
They’re the people who are enthralled by violence, whether it’s a first-person shooter video game or a mixed martial arts spectacle. They’re the people who fill social media with conspiracy theories and store guns and ammunition to protect themselves from imagined intruders. They’re the people who refer to those with a different shade of skin tone or a different accent as inferior.
For much of American history the attention of this group was diverted. There were wars to be fought and foreign enemies to confront.
Discrimination against minorities was accepted and assumed. The Civil Rights movement and the end of the Cold War changed the dynamics, however.
Since then, their search for an “other” to hate has increasingly focused on “others” within our own society. And since 2016, one of their own has occupied the Presidency and too many of his acolytes have seats in legislative bodies.
On Jan. 6 all Americans were exposed to the vulgarities of this group as they focused their wrath on the U.S. Capitol. Unfortunately, the feel-good reaction to this attempted coup will be the national security industrial complex shutting down public access to the Capitol building.
I’m glad I was able to experience the thrills of visiting and working in this environment and I’m saddened future generations will by and large not get this opportunity.
Further security will not address the underlying reasons for these events, however. The grievances of those who feel entitled to their warped view of what the United States should represent are likely to become more pronounced over the next few years.
Until we come to a reckoning about the ills of this segment of society and take steps to ensure their views are exposed as the lies and hate they truly are, further disruptions will occur and threats to our electoral system and form of government will continue to grow.
Opinion contributor Ray E. Landis writes about the issues important to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary page. Follow him on Twitter, @RELandis.