It wasn’t the sight of members of Congress fleeing the Capitol building last week after the debt ceiling debacle that startled me. It was the policeman armed with an M16 combat rifle outside the House of Representatives, guarding them.
The New York Times piece never mentioned the cop. Nor did the caption on the photo by Stephen Crowley. Only one of the hundreds of people who commented on the story online mentioned the unknown officer.
But that was the real story to me.
Yes, the debt ceiling got raised – that was never seriously in doubt, because the financial consequences of default would have been devastating even for the Tea Partiers…. especially for the Tea Partiers. Slightly more interesting was the question of whether the president and the Dems would negotiate their way out of the paper bag the Tea Party people had put them in. (Nope.)
It was the heavily armed Capitol policeman that summarized for me all that has happened to this country over the last decade as we slid into a stinking pool of fear, anger and greed so at odds with our heroic journey. To see that kind of weaponry at the greatest living monument to democracy seemed undeniably to question it.
Maybe some members of Congress have concluded that they need more guns to ward off a nut job like the one who opened fire on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and passers-by in Tuscon last January. But a machine gun on the steps of the Capitol building seems like way more firepower than necessary to stop a lone assassin.
It reminded me of the images we have come to expect from banana republics where the corrupt leaders treat themselves like royalty, insulated from the struggling populace by security men wielding polished pistols or machine guns.
When I lived and worked in Washington in the Seventies, the Kennedy and King assassinations were only a few years old and the wounds were still raw.
Shockingly, President Reagan was shot at the Hilton up on Connecticut Avenue, just after taking office in 1981. But no one – least of all Reagan, who deeply understood the power of imagery and symbolism – would have permitted the conduct of lunatics to steal our freedom and trap us in a mental state of siege.
Or is it simply that the moment has come when the rulers must protect themselves from the ruled?