- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2001

The U.S. Capitol has turned into a virtual ghost town since the Sept. 11 evacuation after hijacked planes struck the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
As many as 17,000 people a day once toured the majestic landmark, but heightened security has reduced that number to 200.
Scheduled tours have been canceled through October, private tours led by Senate and congressional staff suspended, and tourists' freedom to roam the Capitol on their own postponed indefinitely.
"Because of the national tragedy that occurred on September 11, 2001, and in the interest of public safety, visitor procedures at the Capitol are presently under review," says a recording on the U.S. Capitol Guide Service information line.
During the review, the Capitol will be open for only eight tours of 25 persons each from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Outside those hours, the doors will be closed to everyone except lawmakers, staff and media.
Thousands of tourists from all over the world previously could wander throughout the Capitol at their leisure from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Now tours are restricted to the Rotunda, the National Statuary Hall and the Crypt, with nearly 20 officers and security aides nearby.
Staffers and Capitol Hill police officers offer mixed reactions to the tour restrictions.
Tourists increase noise, disrupt movement and create other challenges at the Capitol workplace. Some favor the same tour restrictions in the Capitol as at the White House.
Others, however, say Americans have the right to visit their nation's Capitol at will.
Lobbyists also are affected by the Capitol clampdown. Jim Albertine, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said such activities on Capitol Hill have come to a "screeching halt."
Mr. Albertine said a period of mourning is proper and security reviews are appropriate, but said it is time for the Capitol to get back to business.
"This is a democratic society; not just lobbyists but the American people have a right to access their legislators. If they keep this lockdown, then the terrorists will have done their job and created an atmosphere where democracy cannot flourish," Mr. Albertine said.
Mr. Albertine said that, if necessary, he would favor requiring lobbyists to register for Capitol credentials as staff and the media members do.
Staffers notice signs of increased security everywhere: additional barricades, National Guard helicopters overhead and police officers wearing gas masks on their utility belts.
Gas masks have been available in the Senate press gallery since the impeachment trial of President Clinton, but reporters haven't taken interest until last week.
"There is absolutely a heightened sense of awareness of everything around you, of people coming in and out of the Capitol," said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican.
"We understand that something else very well could have happened that day," said Mr. Bonjean, a reference to United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers overpowered the hijackers. Officials believe the plane was headed for Washington with the Capitol as its target.
The Capitol was closed that Tuesday when the terrorists attacked and reopened only for legislative business for the remainder of the week.
Lawmakers immediately complained that the Capitol and gallery overlooking the Senate floor should be reopened to the public.
"People should be able to monitor Congress," said Sen. Don Nickles, assistant minority leader and Oklahoma Republican. "This is a public institution; you can't deny access to a public institution."
The 500 seats in the balcony overlooking the Senate floor were empty on Sept. 14 when senators unanimously authorized President Bush to "use all necessary and appropriate force against the perpetrator of the deadly hijacks," and to release $40 billion in disaster relief.
"I think it's amazing that in the Capitol of the United States, we are even able to give tours," Mr. Bonjean said.
"Although tours have been restricted, citizens still get to see democracy at work and, hopefully, we will be able to get back to expanded tours."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide