John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Innocence Lost

Posted on October 23, 2014
US Capitol east side.JPG

"US Capitol east side" by Martin Falbisoner - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Like foreshadowing in a dark novel, three years before the attacks on September 11, 2001, a lone gunman walked into the document door of the United States Capitol, pulled out a gun, shot Jacob Chestnut, walked through a metal detector, opened the door to Tom DeLay’s Whip Office, shot John Gibson, who shot him back.

Chestnut and Gibson died at the scene.  The gunman, Russell Weston, was improbably saved by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who rushed in to provide CPR.

Thanks to the Senator’s efforts, we discovered how profoundly disturbed Weston really was.   A paranoid schizophrenic, Weston still has not stood trial for his crimes.  He doesn’t meet the threshold to be able to defend himself competently at trial.   Putting him to death would be a useless exercise.

I was in the Capitol that day, in the DeLay office, and I remember hearing the shots.  I must have heard 20 to 30 shots, but it was in actuality far fewer than that.  The reverberation and echoes made it seem to be much broader attack.

I thought terrorist were coming to get me.  I hid in my office, locking the door.

Everything seemed to move in slow motion.  I wasn’t scared exactly.   Instead it all seemed so bizarre.  Like I was starring in a movie.  I hid under my desk, and talked on the phone.  I remember one conversation in particular with Dan Rather.  Later, the Sergeant at Arms asked us to not talk to reporters.  But by then, the cat was out of the bag.

It had been decades since the Capitol was under attack.  The last time was when some Puerto Rican separatists (terrorists) went into the actual House Chamber and opened fire.  That had been in 1954.   Nobody was killed, but 5 were wounded, one seriously.  As a result, the House had put metal sheets behind the chairs, under the cushions, so that a Member could hide behind them should another attack happen.

I’m still not sure if that’s a smart move or not, but the reinforced seats are still there.

Bill Emerson, the Congressman from Missouri, had been on the floor that day in 1954.  He was a page, the lone link between the attacks.

We learned then that our security wasn’t as good as we thought.  A visitor’s center, construction of which had been held up by cost concerns, was prodded along.  Other efforts were made to secure the building and its perimeter.

Our innocence had been blasted away, in a hail of gunfire, thanks to the ravings of a madman.

It has been over 16 years since that fateful day in July of 1998.

The United States Capitol is now ringed by men, brandishing sub-machine guns.  It’s harder to drive down First Street or New Jersey Avenue on the House side and Senate has closed traffic between the Dirksen building and the Russell building.

The Visitors Center, at a cost of a billion dollars, is a sight to behold, welcoming to tourists, plenty of meeting space, a nice cafeteria and a much more secure entry point into the Capitol.

Reinforced pillars dot the campus, making it harder for a truck bomb to drive close to the Capitol, and police officers are posted outside the campus, inspecting every suspicious vehicle.

This wasn’t all caused by Russell Weston.  Most of the security enhancements occurred after the 9/11 attacks. But the process started with him.

There is no guarantee that a gunman or a group of gunmen, couldn’t attack the Capitol and kill some tourists and maybe a few members and staff.

But the Capitol is pretty well protected, as well as can be expected in a free society.  It’s not secure like the Knesset is secure, but the security challenges faced by the Israelis are for more dire than what we face.

Canada has a different tradition that the United States.  They aren’t out in front of many of these world conflicts like we are.  They aren’t the world’s police force.

But they aren’t sitting the war on terror out either.  They have been active and able partners to us.

It is hard to say that the attack in Ottowa is a foreshadowing of things to come, but like the Russell Weston rampage in 1998, it does show how vulnerable their Parliament building is should another attack happen.

How could somebody shoot a soldier at a War Memorial and then, on foot, make it into a government building (any government building), and start shooting there ?  It is somewhat astounding.

But of course, we had somebody jump a fence and make into an unlocked door in the White House last month, so I guess I shouldn’t judge.

This attack changes things in Canada.  They will never be the same there .   Security will be improved.  Resources will be spent.  More guards will be deployed and those guards will have weapons.

Innocence has been lost in Canada, and once lost, it cannot be found again.