October 3, 2013

THE ORDER went out to Capitol Hill personnel Thursday afternoon in capital letters: SHELTER IN PLACE. It was a terrifying moment for a community already on edge. The scare ended with less carnage than we have come to fear in such moments — but not before we were reminded again of the dedication of those who work for the government. Maybe that reminder will bring some politicians to their senses.

As we write this, investigators are trying to sort out the series of events that apparently began when a woman tried to drive her car through a security barrier near the White House and ended with shots fired near the U.S. Capitol. What the woman, who was killed, intended, whether police responded appropriately, what lessons may be drawn about the efficacy of security barriers: All of that remains to be examined.

What seems beyond doubt is that Secret Service personnel, Capitol Police and probably many others rushed toward, not away from, danger — as they are trained to do and as Americans expect them to do. Inside Congress, aides took cover, traded anxious text messages and then went on with their work.

Like hundreds of thousands of other federal employees, these are men and women whose contributions have been demeaned by the federal shutdown, who are being asked to work without, at least for the moment, being paid — and who are doing their jobs with considerably more dignity than the House of Representatives has mustered.

“We all owe the Capitol Police a debt of gratitude for their work every day; no finer examples of professionalism & bravery,” tweeted House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). That’s true. But Mr. Boehner owes them, and the rest of the federal workforce, more than a 140-character message of thanks. He owes them a paycheck; he owes them a budget; he owes them an apology.

Beyond the shooting Thursday, Washington was full of the usual posturing, speculating, rumor-trading and jockeying for public relations advantage. Maybe the shutdown would be wrapped into the default. Maybe the Obamacare demands would be subsumed into “grand bargain”demands. Maybe this, maybe that.

Meanwhile, there are mothers who depend on federal assistance for nutrition for their children. There are motel owners and workers on Skyline Drive whose livelihood is threatened because the national parks are closed in what should be their peak season. There are dedicated scientists and food inspectors and intelligence analysts who have been told by Mr. Boehner that he and his fellow Republicans do not consider their work all that essential to the nation.

Those scientists and inspectors and analysts are not the nonessential ones.