Editorial: No time for overreaction

July 27, 1998

TYPICAL reaction in this country when a shooting strikes at the heart of the nation's political establishment is to overreact. That certainly is a risk in the wake of the shootings Friday in the Capitol when a gunman opened fire, killing two police officers, wounding a tourist, and was himself critically wounded by police fire.

It serves no purpose now, nor would it in the future, to transform this nation's government buildings and sites of national significance into armed encampments. This is no time to allow a garrison mentality to overrule a realistic and common-sense appraisal of what took place.

The Washington mindset is to pull up the drawbridge, turn the Capitol into a fortress, place guards and security officials of every stripe at virtually every building and at every street corner. But such action would be to no avail.

Clearly, it is appropriate in the interests of safety and security to retain such devices as metal detectors at the entrances of heavily visited buildings, and to ensure as best as possible within reasonable guidelines that individuals such as Russell E. Weston, Jr., the gunman in Friday's incident, do not have access to carry out their private vendettas.

But it is difficult to see how a possibly deranged individual can be prevented from such attacks without impinging on the necessarily open and democratic nature of the city. That course of action was most clearly and distressingly seen in the closure of Pennsylvania Avenue, as if terrorists in tanks were about to cross the Mall and ring the doorbell of the White House. Closing America's street was an erosion of our nation's precious freedoms.

It is, of course, a terrorist threat, rather than a deranged individual, that poses the most danger. But the response of law enforcement officials should be more pro-active and less reactive. The British, their skills honed by years of counterinsurgency activity against Irish terrorists, have learned to use infiltration as a way to fight back against this menace.

In this country, we face not organized terrorist groups but a series of individuals who, for reasons we can't fathom, take up arms against the nation's political leadership.

The assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and attempts on the lives of Presidents Ford and Reagan show that, despite whatever precautions are taken by the Secret Service, a solitary gunman can strike at the very heart of the nation's political leadership.

In the case of Mr. Weston, he has been charged with killing the two officers and could face the federal death penalty if convicted. Clearly the callous murder of two law enforcement officers suggests that penalty may be appropriate.

But what is not appropriate is to use this attack as the rationale for restricting access to government buildings or even closing them off to the very public whose business is conducted inside.