U.S. Capitol | The siege of a historical power centre

Trump’s call to march on the Capitol after his refusal to concede defeat appeared to have led to the assault on the seat of U.S. legislative power

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The violence triggered by these events, and also the evident desire of the mob to disrupt Congressional proceedings to formally certify the win of President-elect Joe Biden — an act for which lawmakers boldly reconvened and voted on the same day — only demonstrates the importance of the Senate and House as parallel repositories of legislative power to counterbalance the executive power of the White House. It is undoubtedly for this reason that the Capitol building, as the locus of legislative power, has faced multiple security threats and assaults over many years since it was built.

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It all began in with the “Residence Act” passed by Congress in 1790, when erstwhile President George Washington zeroed in on modern-day District of Columbia out of land ceded by the State of Maryland. After three commissioners surveyed the site, as they also oversaw the design and construction of the national capital and its many awe-inspiring government buildings, French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant was hired to flesh out the detailed blueprint. It was L’Enfant who proposed situating the Capitol building at the elevated east end of the National Mall, a location he then described as “a pedestal waiting for a monument.”

Ironically, a year later L’Enfant was dismissed before any construction even began, for refusing to produce design drawings for the building on the grounds that he had memorised them, and also for not submitting to the commissioners’ authority with regard to the planning. The planners quickly improvised, however, and a competition with an award of $500 was announced for whoever could produce “the most approved plan” for the Capitol building by mid-July. While 17 plans submitted failed to make the mark, it was a proposal by Dr. William Thornton, a Scottish-trained physician in Tortola, British West Indies, that won approval. Thornton’s plan was for the building to comprise three sections, including a central section topped by a low dome, and flanked on the north and south by two rectangular wings, one for each chamber of Congress.

Also read: U.S. Capitol breach | Administration found siege ‘appalling’, says White House Press Secretary

While the cornerstone of the building was laid by President Washington in 1793, construction using sandstone transported from Virginia by boat took a long time, so much so that despite the subsequent involvement of renowned architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, rooms on the third floor of the extant structure remained incomplete in late 1800 when the U.S. Congress, Supreme Court, Library of Congress, and courts of the District of Columbia occupied the Capitol building.

The building faced its first major attack, a fire set off by British troops in August 1814, during the 1812 War. The incident, in the words of Mr. Latrobe, left the Capitol, “a most magnificent ruin.” The troops were said to have “ignited a giant bonfire of furniture” in the Hall of the House of Representatives that was so intense it destroyed a life-size marble statue of Liberty.

Even as work on various extensions continued through the early 1800s under the guidance of Boston architect Charles Bullfinch and later Philadelphia architect Thomas Walter, the project cost soared to over $2.4 million by 1827.

A history of attacks

The first major incident of violence at the Capitol came on January 30, 1835, when Richard Lawrence, a British immigrant, attempted to assassinate President Andrew Jackson while he was leaving the building from a Congressional funeral. The attempt failed when the powder from his pistol did not ignite and he was taken down by bystanders.

Next, a setback to the Capitol construction came in the form of a gas explosion and fire in the north wing on November 6, 1898, underscoring in the architects’ minds the urgent need for fireproofing, a task completed by 1902.

Less than two decades later, in 1915, a German-born Harvard University professor set off a dynamite explosion near the Senate Reception Room — miraculously there were no injuries. While the assailant reportedly wrote that he had done it as “an exclamation point in my appeal for peace,” he was detained. He later committed suicide while in custody.

In 1954, when the Capitol building had considerably less security than it does now — and no metal detectors — four armed Puerto Rican nationalists entered the House gallery, and opened fire indiscriminately as they waved a Puerto Rican flag, apparently for in protest for independence for the commonwealth. Five House members were injured, and the attackers served long prison terms that were ultimately commuted by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

On March 1, 1971, a violent anti-war extremist outfit, Weather Underground, set off a bomb inside a bathroom on the Senate side of the Capitol. While there were no injuries, hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage was incurred.

International flavour

Capitol attacks took on an international flavour a little more than a decade later, in 1983, when a leftist group calling itself the Armed Resistance Unit set off a bomb hidden under a bench outside the Senate chamber, apparently to protest the U.S. military’s actions in Grenada and Lebanon. There were again zero casualties but seven persons were charged for the attack.

Following this incident, the House and Senate chambers took the precautionary step of adding metal detectors and heightened security, both of which were breached by the pro-Trump mob on January 6. Given the bitter polarisation of the U.S. electorate at this time, it may be wise for the administrators of the Capitol building to fortify its defences further.

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