Washington Is Under Siege. American Democracy Isn’t.

The enhanced security measures in the U.S. capital have triggered a debate over openness, security, and democracy. But the country’s democracy isn’t dead yet.

Members of the National Guard at the U.S. Capitol
Members of the National Guard continue to stand watch along the temporary security fence that surrounds the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 17. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Since the storming of the U.S. Capitol by rioters supporting President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, Washington, D.C., has never been the same: The Capitol grounds are barricaded behind razor-wire fencing, with some sections fortified even further with concrete barricades, and more than 7,000 armed National Guardsmen stand watch throughout downtown.

But behind the barriers, lawmakers are burdened with seemingly irreconcilable objectives—upholding an open and accessible democracy while recognizing and protecting against the real and growing threat of domestic far-right extremism. Late last month, the Department of Homeland Security issued a memo highlighting the escalating threat from people angered by COVID-19 restrictions and the 2020 election results, warning that violent actors may be emboldened by the Capitol assault and inspired by foreign terrorist groups, and that they could target elected officials and government facilities in coming months. Earlier this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced plans to convene a 9/11-type commission to investigate the causes of the attempted Capitol insurrection.

Due to ongoing threats to the Capitol and the people who work there, the extreme security measures are necessary both in practice and as a deterrent against further attempts, said Rachel VanLandingham, a law professor specializing in national security at the Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles.

National Guard officers are reportedly planning for a stay lasting into the fall. And it’s not just security theater.

“I think what happened on the sixth of January is the greatest threat to American democracy, to the American way of government, since the Civil War,” said VanLandingham, a former Air Force judge advocate officer. But she acknowledges the drawn-out security presence and political back-and-forth over securing the capital will take a toll on the country’s image both for citizens and for the rest of the world, potentially outweighing any immediate security benefits.

“The symbolic cost to our democracy is too great,” she said.

The boots might not be leaving Washington’s streets anytime soon: National Guard officers are reportedly planning for a stay lasting into the fall. And it’s not just security theater. In January, a group of representatives wrote a letter to Pelosi urging enhanced safety precautions in the wake of “receiving a significant uptick in threats of violence and even death.” Lawmakers have said it’s a nonpartisan issue, but the letter was signed by 31 Democrats and just one Republican, Rep. Fred Upton, who was one of the few House Republicans who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump for his role in inciting the Capitol assault. (Trump was acquitted last week by the Senate in his second impeachment trial.)

Other Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach or convict Trump are also facing a backlash. Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey was censured by York County Republicans and faces a hearing with the state party. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois was also censured by his local Republican Party and even members of his extended family.

But the tighter security—and especially the specter that it could become near-permanent—is not sitting well with those who represent D.C. itself.

“The openness of the Capitol and our democracy is our strength, not a security weakness that needs to be rooted out,” wrote Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia in Congress in a nonvoting capacity, in a statement earlier this month after the acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman recommended permanent fencing and a sustained troop presence around the Capitol.

“I understand and I’m not taking issue with what we’ve had to do immediately following this outrageous attack. But the notion that any part of what we’re doing would become permanent is a failing that we just can’t allow to happen without looking at other available means, of which there are many,” Norton told Foreign Policy in an interview.

Earlier this month, Norton reintroduced a bill to ensure access to public buildings, and, in conjunction with her push for D.C. statehood, she has also introduced legislation that would give Washington’s mayor control over the district’s National Guard; it’s the only Guard formation not under state control, because D.C. is not a state. Both the district’s mayor and some council members voiced support for her opposition to permanent security barriers.

It’s easy to see why the image of America overseas has been tarnished—but this impression may be mistaken.

What happened on the steps of the Capitol in January—and the continued squabbling by the country’s lawmakers—has been sharply criticized by world leaders and analysts for projecting a negative image of the country’s democratic bona fides. The United Kingdom’s Home Secretary Priti Patel, for example, denounced Trump’s remarks during the siege for having spurred the violent attacks. The German politician Norbert Röttgen, head of the foreign affairs committee in the German parliament, said that the United States is currently in a spiritual “civil war,” and it will take more than U.S. President Joe Biden’s term in office to reconcile that divide.

It’s easy to see why the image of America overseas has been tarnished—but this impression may be mistaken.

“The visual of what we have in the capital right now is that of a government under threat or under siege. And that’s not the case,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center.

She noted that the security measures should match the threat at hand, and given that Biden took office and is staffing up the government with his own appointees, U.S. democracy, poor optics aside, is operating as it should.

“We really need to be careful to make sure that people around the world understand that something fundamental hasn’t changed in the United States,” she said.

Kelly Kimball is the social media editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @kellyruthk

Katie Livingstone is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @sassovivente