The only comprehensive study of the effects of 9/11 attacks on our nation’s capital, One Nation Under Siege: Congress, Terrorism, and the Fate of American Democracy provides a detailed investigation of how the nation’s intricate political system adapted in times of crisis. Evans uses her personal experiences as a congressional fellow living in Washington D.C. as the foundation for a richly researched analysis of how Congress changed as an institution and a national symbol in the wake of 9/11. Evans reveals not only physical transformations but also internal policy shifts that threaten democracy by limiting citizens’ access to their elected leaders.
You were working as a Fellow of Congress on Capitol Hill on the day of 9/11. Can you describe your experiences?
Most adults can easily recall where they were on 9/11. Images of that historic day, including the collapse of the Twin Towers and the plumes of smoke billowing from the Pentagon, are indelibly ingrained on the American national memory. In 2001, I just happened to be in Washington, D.C., working on Capitol Hill as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow. From this vantage point, I witnessed firsthand the fear that rippled across the nation’s capital city and the ensuing response of the government to the call for increased homeland security.
I remember calling my mother from the reception area of the congressional office in which I worked to talk to her about the television footage of New York. From a corner of the office, a staffer announced that a different channel had footage of the Pentagon on fire. As congressional leadership and Capitol Police scrambled to respond to the emerging threat facing the Capitol, I realized that our seat of government was highly vulnerable to attack. With instructions to evacuate, I remember leaving the Longworth House Office Building with cell phone in hand and nearly running to Lot 7 on C Street just north of the metro. From the parking lot, I could see the smoke from the Pentagon. I was able to cross I-395 just before it was closed to through traffic. The pictures that appear in the book’s preface capture my view of the Pentagon from the interstate on this drive. From a friend’s apartment, I watched as firefighters worked tirelessly through the days and nights that followed to save the smoldering building.
In what ways do your firsthand experiences of the 2001 terrorist attacks on Capitol Hill affect your viewpoint in your book?
I have always felt that one of the most underappreciated aspects of the U.S. Congress is its unique culture. The Hill has a vibe about it that few people have the opportunity to witness. The time I spent on the Hill was invaluable in that it provided me with a practical sense of the workings of Congress and an insider’s understanding of the environment in which Members and staff operate. My experiences in 2001, including an eye-witness account of both the 9/11 and anthrax attacks, provided me with a firsthand appreciation of the important impact of these events for Hill life. While the events of the fall of 2001 were unprecedented, the changes they introduced to the way the Hill conducts its business have yet to be noted by political scientists or historians. This book serves as a testament of this dramatic change and a reminder of the lasting impact of terrorism for American politics.
Why did you feel that it was important to write about the institutional changes made in Congress since 9/11?
I knew on 9/11 that things would never be the same. As the months passed following the event, Congress took drastic measures to secure its facilities, its personnel, and our system of government. Not only did security protocol change, internal office administration also changed. Capitol Police tightened evacuation procedures and equipped hallways and offices with gas masks and escape hoods. They also significantly altered the system for processing congressional mail. Congressional leadership drastically amended the committee structure to include committees dedicated to the issue of homeland security. And Members of Congress focused intense effort on construction of an underground complex to screen and process visitors entering the U.S. Capitol. Ask any staffer who began work on the Hill before 2001 about the changes introduced as a result of the terrorist attacks of this year, and these are just a few of the changes to which he or she will draw your attention. The book highlights these institutional changes while setting them within historical context.
In your book, you examine the way that Congress has responded to assaults throughout history. How do you feel the security response to 9/11 compares to previous examples?
One thing I learned in writing this book is that the Capitol has always been the target of those who would wish to do our nation harm. We often forget that the city of Washington was burned by the British during the War of 1812. Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire on the House floor in the 1950s. Two Capitol Police officers lost their lives in the line of duty in 1998. How are the terrorist attacks of 2001 any different? One theme of the text is that these attacks are not different. Our Capitol is a symbol of democracy around the world and thus is an enemy target. The Congress gradually and systematically has increased security to meet ever-changing threats. Another theme of the book, however, is that the combined impact of 9/11 and anthrax has led to an unprecedented degree of institutional change that has fundamentally restructured office administration, constituent communication, committee structure and jurisdiction, and the Capitol visitor’s experience. The effects of these changes will continue to be felt for generations to come.
In your opinion, have the days of a publicly accessible Congress come to an end in America? Why or why not?
In many ways Congress is more accessible today than it has ever been. The emphasis on email since the anthrax attacks, for example, provides constituents with an immediate mode of communication that bypasses the intense screening process for paper mail. Nonetheless, the sheer volume of email correspondence that has resulted from this shift in communication holds significant implications for the quality of responsiveness possible from congressional offices. In terms of the accessibility of the U.S. Capitol, there is a similarly two-sided story. On the one hand, visitors now enjoy a lavish entrance into the Capitol through museum-like exhibits emphasizing the importance of the Congress and the history of the building. Orientation films guide visitors through the highlights of the Capitol experience, and live C-SPAN coverage of the floors of the House and Senate are available to watch in the comfort of the Capitol Visitor Center. All of these experiences preface a Capitol tour and provide important context for appreciating the legislative process at work. On the other hand, the facility is a glorified underground bunker designed to screen visitor belongings at a safe distance from the Capitol Building. It is a means for limiting and directing public access to the Capitol. In the final chapters of the book, I turn to the significant symbolism and implications of this change for democratic political life.
In your book, you talk about a shift in culture on Capitol Hill as a result of the impact of terrorism. What was the biggest change you noticed?
While several tangible changes to Hill life stand as a testament to the events of 2001, one of the biggest changes to the culture was quite intangible. The 9/11 and anthrax attacks as well as evacuations following these events have had an intense psychological impact on Members and staff across the Capitol Complex. One does not quickly forget being told by Capitol Police to “take off your high-heel shoes and run.” Before these events, the Hill was a workplace in which staff rubbed shoulders with Members of Congress. Since 2001, there is a sense that the Hill is a target, a somewhat dangerous place in which staff sacrifice their personal security to serve the legislative branch of government.