Politics & Policy

It’s Time to Get the National Guard Off of Capitol Hill

Members of the National Guard patrol near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 19, 2021. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

In the aftermath of January 6, Capitol Hill was transformed essentially into a military installation, surrounded by high razor-wire fencing, patrolled by National Guardsmen and other security forces, and accessible only via checkpoints.

These were sold as short-term measures, only to last through the inauguration and impeachment. Well, impeachment has come and gone, but it doesn’t seem as if the Capitol area will look much different anytime soon.

To be sure, there are fewer troops: On Inauguration Day, there were some 25,000. Now it’s around 6,000. But already there have been worrying changes to initial assurances, as well as public statements that suggest a more permanent military-style footprint for the Capitol.

Even the original plans called for a continued troop presence in the thousands into March. But according to a D.C. Fox affiliate, assistant secretary for homeland defense and global security Robert Salesses is considering plans to maintain some level of National Guard presence on the Capitol “at least through fall 2021.” And in late January, acting Capitol Hill Police chief Yogananda Pittman suggested that at least some of the current security measures be made permanent. It’s worth remembering, in this context, that the perimeter fencing erected the day after the riot was supposed to be up only for 30 days. We’re past that benchmark, and there is no sign of its coming down anytime soon.

The idea of extending the current extreme security measures on the Hill indefinitely has done the seemingly impossible — achieved bipartisan condemnation. D.C. congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, and Michigan representative Lisa McClain, a Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, have both spoken out against this prospect. Neither so far has been able to get any answers about what’s coming next.

Reportedly, Salesses is meeting on Wednesday with officials from other law-enforcement agencies to discuss next steps. But that so many have been kept in the dark is disturbing. The post hoc changes and overall murkiness strongly suggest a reflex to let a (perhaps understandable) initial overreaction transform into a new status quo, as too often happens.

The large-scale presence of National Guardsmen on the Hill should end. These troops have done their duty admirably, but it’s time to go home. New security protocols may be necessary at the Capitol — certainly the police should be better prepared for protests that might run out of control — but they should be carefully thought-through and calibrated. And they shouldn’t include a tall razor-wire fence that symbolically separates our elected representatives from the people they serve.

The U.S. Capitol is one of the marvels of our open society. It shouldn’t be made to look like it belongs in a closed one.

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