On July 24, 1998, Russell Weston rushed through one of the heavily guarded entrances at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., firing a .38 caliber revolver as he attempted to kill the Members of Congress inside. During his brief shooting spree, Weston murdered two Capitol Hill police officers, one of whom was able to return fire, wounding Weston, before succumbing to his own wounds. Weston survived.
That date – this educator was working in a nearby Senate office building at the time – marked the end of an era when access to public buildings could be reasonably assured without time-consuming, and financially costly, security systems having to be put into place. While the entrance Weston used was considered “secure,” the shootings that day resulted in a reevaluation of the procedures by which members of the public are allowed access to government buildings. From that day on, all entrances to the U.S. Capitol and the surrounding Senate and House office buildings were made more secure. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, reinforced the notion that access to public, and especially government buildings needed to be made much more secure – a development witnessed by millions of Americans attempting to board commercial aircraft ever since those attacks.
While federal buildings today routinely scan individuals and bags for suspect items, many city, county and state government buildings have to date found it necessary to follow the federal lead. Having relocated from Washington, D.C. to St. Louis County, Minnesota, and having advised local law enforcement about the need for improved security measures in the public courthouses, this educator was consequently not surprised when, on December 14, 2011, 42-year old Daniel Schlienz entered a local courthouse and opened fire, leaving three county employees seriously wounded. None of the local government buildings, nor the State Capitol building, had any kind of security measures in place to prevent such an incident.
While this possibly self-serving discussion reflects the biases of one particular individual, it is important to consider what the proper balance between security and access should be, at least where government buildings are concerned. Hopefully, the United States will not have to become like Israel, where armed guards search bags of customers entering restaurants and grocery stores because of the history of terrorism there. The United States, however, has shifted a long way from where it was before 9/11. Paramilitary police guarding trains and bus depots, the increasing militarization of law enforcement agencies, and the ever-changing nature of the security regimes in place at airports are all manifestations of public concern about “the next” terrorist attack.
It is prudent to increase security and better control access to some public buildings, like courthouses. How much further that access control should go, however, is entirely contingent upon the demands of the public for better security when attending public events like parades or fireworks celebrations, or when entering nongovernment buildings, especially shopping malls. The proliferation of video surveillance combined with the placement of sensors to detect chemical or biological agents in the air has already fundamentally altered the way most Americans view security. How much farther it will, or should, go is a matter that will be addressed following the next attack.