[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Adam Serwer, Host:
Many books about terrorism begin with a personal anecdote about where the author was on 9/11. Political Scientist Jocelyn Jones Evans was working on the Hill when the planes hit and changed the course of American national security policy.
“For the first and only time in my life,” she recalls, “I remember rolling down my windows to see and to hear the news for myself.”
One Nation Under Siege though, isn’t a book about policy. It’s a book about how 9/11 and its aftermath changed the culture of Congress, and how those changes have affected the work of government and the American people’s access to their own representatives. Drawing on dozens of interviews with Hill staff and legislators, Evans vividly depicts the impact of the threat of terrorism on congressional culture after 9/11 through a combination of narrative and political science.
The already heightened sense of alarm on the Hill right after 9/11 was compounded weeks later when an intern in then-Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s office opened an envelope containing anthrax—which lead to process by which each piece of mail sent to Congress is decontaminated, delaying its receipt for weeks, and speeding the technological shift towards email. Both attacks, according to Evans caught the Capitol police sorely unprepared for either emergency. There was confusion over whether the Speaker’s office or the Capitol police themselves were responsible for coordinating the emergency response. There was no system in place for preventing biological threats from entering the buildings or detecting them once they got there. The attacks prompted the Bush administration to create a new governmental agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and Congress scrambled to put in place the relevant oversight committees. But the pressing nature of their work didn’t stop the committees in both houses from being rendered relatively ineffectual by turf wars between previously established committees and their entrenched leadership.
The most dramatic physical change to the Hill however, is that the attacks, which revealed just how unprepared Hill authorities were to deal with an emergency, sped the construction of the Capitol Visitors Center, a kind of underground hybrid of fortress and museum that funnels visitors through a single entry point in order to maintain security. The 9/11 attacks and the Anthrax scare, Evans points out, were hardly the first time Congress has been menaced by violence. From the burning of the Capitol in 1814 to the shootings in the House Chamber itself in 1954, Congress has felt under siege before. But while the CVC was first proposed in the 1970s, it was the 9/11 attacks that pushed the greatest single expansion in the building’s history into becoming a reality, after years of stalled construction and wasted funds. But not even a sense of self-preservation could overcome Congress’ natural sloth—the CVC wasn’t completed until 2008. No longer do visitors enter through the steps of the Capitol—instead they enter from underneath, as the building’s edifice looms above them. “Democracy’s temple may be more secure,” Evans writes, “but it is less accessible.”
For those of us interested in the massive expansion of the national security state—an expansion that has continued apace under the new Democratic administration—the CVC offers a poetic symbol of the way liberty has been sacrificed in the name of a rather expensive and symbolic sense of security. The CVC was a longtime target of both parties for being a waste of taxpayer dollars, and even conservative media organs like the Washington Times warned in the 1990s that “limiting individuals’ access to their representatives could bring out the worst in our own government.” But as we now know, 9/11 “changed everything.”
The change that may have the most significant impact on the fate of American democracy however, is something more subtle. The heightened security that has emerged on the Hill since the 9/11 attacks reminds those who are responsible for writing and passing laws related to national security of their constant vulnerability. While few would dispute the need for greater security after 9/11, the cultural impact of things like House desks now containing gas masks rather than the congressional record can’t be ignored. Most of us don’t have to go to work every day having to worry about a potential terrorist attack. But everyone who works on the Hill has to worry about it—it’s hard to imagine that new paradigm doesn’t affect the trajectory of American national security policy. As one Senior Republican Congressman put it to Evans, “Partisanship is mostly from media accounts. Most issues relating to security are not that partisan.” I suspect for some many of us, that’s more a source of frustration than a comfort.
One Nation Under Siege is a fascinating book, and I would encourage salon participants to ask Professor Evans about the contrast between congressional culture before and after 9/11, the way its affected communications between constituents and their representatives and Senators, and ultimately what it means for the legislative branch of a democratic system to operate under a siege mentality.