The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Fences around the Capitol are a temporary fix. Here’s what we should do.

National Guard personnel open a gate in the razor wire-topped perimeter fence around the Capitol on Monday. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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Retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré served on the Joint Staff during the Clinton administration and coordinated relief efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

If there is one thing I have learned from my 37 years in the U.S. Army, and 13 years since in environmental and civil rights causes, it is that fences may work to keep livestock in your field, but they don’t work — and they send the wrong signal — when you use them against people.

The four miles of fences that now ring the Capitol will do nothing to prevent another attack, or to help us understand the underlying failures that allowed the riot to happen.

When people are angry or hungry or desperate or feel aggrieved, walls and fences won’t stop them. And when security forces ignore — or lack — the intelligence that suggests a mob attack is imminent, no defense will matter.

That’s just part of what went wrong behind the scenes on Jan. 6. When I arrived in Washington, at the request of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), to lead a review of the U.S. Capitol’s security failures in the wake of the deadly attack, I was shocked to see the extent to which our nation’s capital city had been militarized and the Capitol complex cordoned off. Over the next five weeks, a group of 16 experts produced a 15-page summary report recommending dozens of changes in how we secure and protect the citadel of democracy. (A more detailed, 78-page version has not been made public.)

The fence is a temporary measure until more sustainable changes are made. But the sight of barriers and concertina encircling the Capitol is a reminder that fences accomplish a number of things, most of them bad. First, they provide a false sense of security. Second, they delay the introduction of more effective technologies that can better protect a target. And they are easy to breach.

The fence provides a false sense of security much as the Maginot Line provided the French an illusion of safety in the years before World War II. (History students will recall that the Germans simply went around the line and invaded France via Belgium and Luxembourg.) Similarly, the border wall with Mexico has also turned out to be an easily breached, expensive failure. Where it is 15 feet tall, all it takes is a 20-foot ladder to go over the top — and there are so many gaps that people just go around it.

Nor does the fencing in D.C. today confront the root causes and failures of the Jan. 6 attack by the seditionist rioters. It will not protect the Capitol — or the lawmakers and aides who work nearby — from those with anti-government ideologies who wish to do harm to the U.S. government.

History tells us that the next wave of insurrectionists will sidestep the defenses to find a weak spot, or will simply find another target. We know that the January mob was fed a steady diet of lies and false conspiracies that allowed their insecurities and fears to fester. Without understanding the causes that led to the riots, no amount of fencing will make the city or the nation safe.

But the mob had been forming online for weeks, and could have been repulsed with proper planning had security officials paid closer attention to the intelligence. The riots proved to be the first time the U.S. Capitol had been breached since the British attack on Aug. 24, 1814. The similarities between the two events are striking: In 1814, government officials played down the threat to Washington even as a British expeditionary force overwhelmed an exhausted American army at the Battle of Bladensburg, just a few miles northeast of the Capitol.

Following the battle, the British marched on Washington. Without intelligence about the enemy’s position and strength, the Americans relied on rumors instead of facts. As a result, the British not only ransacked the Capitol but set fire to the White House and numerous other government buildings.

Similarly, on Jan. 6, 2021, the rioters took advantage of an opportunity. As thousands of demonstrators moved from President Donald Trump’s speech and rally at the Ellipse in a coordinated march to the Capitol, police and other security forces were unaware of their true intentions.

The complete breakdown in law enforcement was preventable.

We have been slow to accept the reality that a danger to our democracy also lies within our borders. We have been unwilling to invest in the personnel and resources to address those dangers. The Capitol Police need more personnel, more intelligence-gathering capabilities, better coordination with other federal law enforcement agencies, stronger internal lines of authority, and clearer command focus on threats to public property and public officials. The Capitol security apparatus is long past due for an overhaul. Everyone in the world now knows that.

As for the fence, it should be replaced with retractable barriers and an up-to-date video surveillance network. These urgent security measures will require the immediate approval of a supplemental appropriation by Congress.

We don’t want to lose our democracy, but fences won’t protect it.

Read more:

Letters to the Editor: Take down the Capitol fencing

George F. Will: The fencing around the Capitol scars the epicenter of American democracy

David Ignatius: What went wrong with the protection of the U.S. Capitol

The Post’s View: Was it really a lack of resources that led to the failures of Jan. 6?

The Post’s View: Secure the Capitol. But don’t deface it with a permanent fence.