Shortly before 11 p.m., an explosion ripped through a hall outside the Senate chamber, blasting the door off the office of the Democratic minority leader, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, and punching fist-size holes in the Republican cloakroom. It tore a 19th-century oil portrait of Daniel Webster from its frame and shredded Webster’s face into little pieces that became strewn among the rubble of shattered tiles, pulverized plaster and broken glass. To some late-night joggers passing by, it sounded like a “sonic boom.” “It was loud enough to make my ears hurt,” said one. “It kept echoing and echoing — boom, boom.’’
Sticks of dynamite packed with a timer had been planted under a bench in the corridor. If the Senate had still been in session, someone probably would have been killed. As it happened, no one was hurt.
Today the 1983 U.S. Capitol bombing is almost forgotten. The radical left-wing perpetrators were prosecuted and given long prison sentences. Yet in another sense, especially after the right-wing insurrectionist assault on the building on Jan. 6, that blast echoes more loudly than ever. It marked the beginning of fear itself taking hold as an urban design principle in Washington. The latest expression of that fear would be a permanent fence that officials are now thinking of erecting around swaths of the Capitol grounds.
The 1983 bombing was committed by the May 19th Communist Organization, M19, a women-founded and women-led band of underground militants with a core of about 10 members. They took their name from the birthdays of Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh. Some had been members of the Weather Underground or other radical groups. After enduring the macho arrogance of male-dominated radical culture, the women of M19, with a couple of male comrades, charted their own path.
The group was tied to eight bombings from 1983 to 1985 in Washington and New York, and other crimes. Anonymous messages from the bombers railed against the U.S. interventions in Grenada, Lebanon and Central America. “They wanted to literally make a boom and to draw attention to their cause,” says historian William Rosenau, whose revealing chronicle of M19 and its deeds, “Tonight We Bombed the U.S. Capitol,” was published last year.
The FBI eventually caught up with the group. In 1990, three members pleaded guilty to charges related to the bombing. In 2001, President Bill Clinton commuted the sentence of Linda Evans. Laura Whitehorn was released in 1999. Marilyn Buck was paroled in 2010 when she was terminally ill with cancer.
The Capitol — and Washington — would never be the same. The day after the 1983 bombing, House and Senate leaders agreed to restrict the people's access to the people's branch: Public entrances would be cut from 10 to four. Metal detectors would be installed at the public entrances. Tourists and lobbyists would no longer be allowed in the corridors outside the House and Senate chambers. Such restrictions had never been deemed necessary despite two previous bombings — in 1915 and 1971 — and the volley of shots fired by four Puerto Rican liberation militants from the House gallery that wounded several members in 1954.
From then on, significant episodes of violence often prompted increased fortification and diminished public commons. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Pennsylvania Avenue NW was closed to traffic in front of the White House. Later, on the other side of the White House, E Street NW was closed, too. Now, even tourists on foot are barred from the sidewalk next to the South Lawn fence, where people once flocked to admire the most iconic view of the White House.
In 1998 a gunman forced his way into the Capitol and killed two Capitol Police officers. The tragedy prompted Congress to greenlight a plan to build a vast underground Capitol Visitor Center to funnel tourists through one entrance set apart from the Capitol itself. Scores of trees had to be removed from the park-like grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.
In 2001, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the anonymous mailing of anthrax spores to congressional offices, the majestic outdoor West Steps and upper west terrace of the Capitol were closed. Washington lost a favorite gathering place to watch fireworks, listen to concerts and admire the best view of the National Mall. “It’s indefinite,” a Capitol Police spokesman said of the closing at the time. “We never like to say permanent.” But of course it was permanent, as new security measures almost always are.
Which brings us to the seven-foot-tall black fence circling the Capitol grounds today. It went up after the insurrection and was supposed to be temporary. But last month acting Capitol Police chief Yogananda Pittman called for permanent fencing. Local officials are pushing back, but authority rests with the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms, the Architect of the Capitol, and Congress, which would have to appropriate the funds. (Capitol Police and both sergeant-at-arms offices didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
Those entities may have the final say, but really, terrorists and criminals have been the unspoken co-signers of every blueprint to enhance security and reduce public access since the 1983 Capitol bombing. I can’t help thinking of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, every time I walk on the pedestrian block of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. Osama bin Laden gets credit for closing the West Steps. And if this new fence stays in place, it will be another indelible feature on Washington’s landscape — a monument to the Proud Boys, QAnon and #StopTheSteal.
The city’s residents haven’t given up on preserving the humanity and good faith that define our civic crossroads and symbols of democracy. Hill resident Allison Cunningham has gathered more than 12,000 signatures on an online petition to prevent a permanent fence. “I would hate for a permanent fence to show the insurrectionists of January 6th that they won in any way,” she told me.
Uwe Brandes, faculty director of the Urban & Regional Planning Program at Georgetown University, is one of the few who’ve been part of a successful effort to dial back a security perimeter. As a city planning official in D.C. in the early 2000s, he helped create the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, which required getting the Washington Navy Yard to grant public access to its waterfront. Brandes says there’s always a way to meet the needs of both security and access, if drastic decisions aren’t made “in a hasty, post-event setting.” “The grounds of the Capitol were designed explicitly to be a place of convening for the general public,” he told me. “To eliminate public access to the grounds of the Capitol would ... be a grave mistake.”
Rep. Austin J. Murphy, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, had it right after he sprinted from his office in the Rayburn Building to survey the damage on the night of Nov. 7, 1983. “I think we definitely have a security problem,” he told reporters. “The only alternative is to wall it off like the Kremlin. We can’t do that. In a free country, you’re free to come in and out of your Capitol.”
David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine.