Not the first violence at the U.S. Capitol, but we must make it the last
The U.S. Capitol was overrun January 6 by an angry, armed mob of insurrectionists carrying campaign banners with the name “Trump” displayed just as prominently as on any of his failed casinos.
There is no doubt as to their motives; they wanted to disrupt the counting of Electoral College votes by the Congress and the Senate, usually a plain vanilla enterprise unnoticed by either the public or the media. In this era of Trump and the coronavirus, however, there is nothing either “plain” or “vanilla,” much as we might like to have it so.
Osama bin Laden may have had a plan to bomb the building in 2001, but a brave, if doomed, group of patriots aboard United Flight 93 had a different idea, and forced their plane to crash in Pennsylvania. Bin Laden was neither the last (obviously) nor the first.
The first attack on the building came from the British during the War or 1812. The building was still under construction when British troops set a large bonfire in the Hall of the House of Representatives, while another was set in the chambers of the Supreme Court, then part of the same complex. The United States won that war, as you probably learned in school.
Twenty-one years later, on Jan. 20, 1835, Richard Lawrence tried to kill President Andrew Jackson. The president was leaving a funeral at the Capitol when the British Lawrence’s pistol failed to fire, and a shot from his second pistol missed. He was brought down by bystanders. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and spent the remainder of his life in institutions.
Another 21 years later came the beating of Sen. Charles Sumner by one of his fellow legislators. The issue was slavery, and Sumner, from Massachusetts, had given a speech against slavery and was taken to task by Sen. Preston Brooks of South Carolina. Brooks beat Sumner with a cane. Sumner survived, Brooks was reelected but died a year later.
On July 2 in 1915, a former professor at Harvard exploded three sticks of dynamite in the Senate Reception Room. His name was Eric Muenter and was protesting the support by American financial people to the United Kingdom in World War I. There were no injuries, but a chandelier and some tiles were damaged in the blast. Muenter was arrested and committed suicide in his cell July 6. Afterwards, he was discovered to have been a German nationalist.
Fast forward to 1954, when four Puerto Rican nationalists entered the House of Representatives chamber brandishing a Puerto Rican flag and began firing pistols wildly. They were hoping to gain independence for the commonwealth. Five representatives were wounded, and the gunmen were arrested, convicted and served long prison sentences. They were pardoned by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, after a long international campaign.
In 1971, the Weather Underground planted a bomb in a bathroom toward the Senate side of the Capitol, which caused hundreds of thousands of dollars when it went off on March 1, 1971. Charges were dropped for technical legal reasons and to keep investigative tools secret. There were no casualties, as was the case in 1983, when the Armed Resistance Unit, protesting military action in both Granada and Lebanon, hid a bomb under a bench outside the Senate Chamber. Seven people were charged.
A lone gunman, Russell Eugene Weston, roared past a U.S. Capitol security checkpoint in 1998, killing one officer on his way to Congressional offices. A detective exchanged fire with the Weston, was mortally wounded, but enabled other officers to capture and arrest the shooter. He was found to be mentally ill, and was confined in a psychiatric facility.
The next attack was on September 11, 2001, as noted above.
In October 2013, however, a Connecticut woman was shot and killed by officers on the U.S. Capitol grounds. She had tried to break through a security checkpoint at the White House, and once turned back, led police on a chase across Washington, D.C. After a 12-block chase, Miriam Carey, an unarmed 34-year-old dental hygienist from Stamford, was shot and killed by Capitol Police. It was a famous case in Connecticut, one that never arrived at a satisfactory conclusion. Was she mentally ill? We will now never know.
Then in 2016, 66-year-old Larry Russell Dawson of Tennessee, was shot after pointing a BB gun at officers while trying to enter the visitor center at the U.S. Capitol. He was shot in the chest and the thigh, charged with assault and sentenced to 14 months in prison. At the time, the Washington Post reported that although his motives were unclear, he’d been arrested before for disrupting Congress and claiming to be a “prophet of god.
The fact is, the older – and colder – a case gets, the less likely it is to be solved to anyone’s satisfaction. However, Jan. 6, 2021, was the first time insurrectionists invaded the center of our democracy, the bicameral legislature created by way of the U.S. Constitution. None were “mentally insane,” and all were spurred on by Donald J. Trump. Some insiders were complicit, some innocent of complicity. It will be up to the justice system to sort that out, and for the good of our so-called “noble experiment of democracy,” let’s all hope it will happen quickly and justly.
It’s the democratic way.
Brian McGlynn is a journalist and essayist living in Mystic
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