No, I have nothing wildly dramatic to add to the video clips you might have seen on the news. But, as it happens, I was in the U.S. Capitol building Monday afternoon, when U.S. Capitol Police shot an armed man in the Capitol Visitor Center, and the entire place went under lockdown. I did not see the shooting. I was in another part of the building, where we did not even hear the gunfire.
But what happened was, to say the least, thought-provoking. So I’ll share a few of the thoughts it provoked.
I was in a meeting room with about seven or eight other people. We had just wrapped up an hour-and-a-half discussion, talking mainly about security threats to the United States — terrorism, Iran, North Korea, and so forth. With the meeting over, at least one person had already left. The rest of us were still chatting. I was both talking and admiring the room, especially the many-tiered crystal chandelier and the elaborate woodwork. There are some very plush rooms in Washington. Then someone came into the room and said, quietly, please come with me. This building is under lockdown.
It took a moment for the message to register. We had no idea what had brought this on, but the first thing that occurred to me, and to everyone else in the room, was Brussels, where last week ISIS bombed the airport and the metro. Except we had felt no explosion. Was there something of that kind yet to come?
We were led down a hall, then told to wait in the middle of the hall while our guide knocked on a door. It seemed locked. There did not seem to be any immediate danger, but I did not like standing in a huddle in the open hallway, waiting for a door to open. I thought of the 2008 attacks in Bombay, which went on for four days, with Islamist terrorists from Pakistan bombing and shooting to death more than 160 people. I thought of the ISIS-linked shootings in Paris, last fall, with the massacre at the Bataclan concert hall, and at cafes — I did not remember exactly how many cafes. But I remembered a video from inside one of them. At one moment, people are chatting and having a drink. Then they are rushing for cover, and we know that some are dead or dying. I thought of San Bernardino, and the shock of those people who one minute were having an office Christmas party, and the next were being murdered by their jihadi co-worker and his killer bride.
I thought that most of us think it could never really happen to us. Oh, we get scared, we worry. We tune in, we retweet, as each new attack brings its list of the dead; its roster of the terrible ways they died; the details of the grieving families, the manhunt…. But we don’t really believe it could happen to us. We don’t really believe the world would dare. If we all did, would anyone still have patience with President Obama’s fickle arc of history and fading red lines? Surely there would be no tolerance for his rotten nuclear deal with Iran, his big shrug in the face of North Korean nuclear tests, his flexibility with Russia, his deference to an increasingly aggressive China, his open-ended timeline to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS — which, in the meantime, replete with turf, has effectively become a terrorist group that serves as its own terror-sponsoring state.
In the Capitol, someone opened the door we thought was locked. They beckoned us in, and told us we should shelter in place.
I hate that phrase: “Shelter in place.” Perhaps it is useful advice, in Boston, or Brussels, or Paris — and certainly it was the security protocol on Monday on Capitol Hill. But it sounds cowardly. Actually, it sounds a lot like U.S. foreign policy these past seven years: Withdraw, shelter in place and hope that — like that fabled “receding tide of war” — the dangers will go away, or at least go somewhere else.
But this was not the moment to debate the order to hunker down. We still did not know what had caused the lockdown, and no one seemed in a hurry to tell us. They were giving us orders, not explanations. So, we began sheltering in place. Then the security guards decided we should shelter in a different place, and took us to another room, where we carried on sheltering, in that place.
By then, news of the shooting in the Capitol Visitor Center had begun turning up on the internet. We all had our mobile phones. The reports were muddled, but between the tweets and the headline news, we narrowed the event down to a shooting, in another part of the building. The question being whether this was a lone incident, or someone had something more planned.
Clearly no one in our particular small group wished to appear afraid, let alone panicked. We went a bit too far in the opposite direction, carrying on polite chit-chat, making jokes, as if this were a school fire-drill, not a lockdown of the U.S. Capitol in an age when terrorist slaughters are becoming a regular event in cities around the globe. There were preparations we could have made — even while “sheltering in place” — to better secure the room, and coordinate our actions, had a killer come to the door. But it seemed rude to bring this up. No one did. Only after we left the building did I decide that next time I find myself under lockdown, I will go ahead and be as rude as necessary, if that’s what it takes to suggest that before we make convivial conversation, we agree on a contingency plan more robust than this “sheltering in place” and waiting for the next set of instructions.
The whole thing lasted less than an hour — or thereabouts (I did not check the time precisely). One of the officials sheltering with us got a message that the lockdown was being lifted. We were let back out of our designated room, to join a big queue of people who had now appeared in the hall, all being shepherded out of the building.
We stepped outside, with armed guards directing us away from the Capitol. Looking at the green lawns and trees in bloom, I found myself thinking of the video just released by North Korea, depicting with clumsy graphics a nuclear strike obliterating Washington. It would be less troubling were North Korea not working on weapons capable of actually carrying out a devastating attack, one way or another; had North Korea not carried out three nuclear tests, effectively unchecked, since Obama took office.
I won’t pretend that I went on to review the full roster of foreign policy debacles and rising threats of recent years. The immediate threat was over. It was time to find a cup of coffee. But — struck by the symbolism of the entire episode — I did walk away from the Capitol trying to imagine, as a national slogan for America, “They sheltered in place.” I couldn’t quite conjure that. I did not want to.