Saturday, April 23, 2016

Blowing up the US Capitol

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Terrorism is a sad fact of life today, but it is nothing new.  There have always been radicalized people willing to wreak destruction to make some political point.  The US Capitol alone has been a target on several occasions..

The 1814 Attack:

The first attack on the US Capitol came, not from terrorists acting in secret, but from an invading Army.  The British Army invaded Washington DC during the War of 1812, damaging much of hte new city.  During their raid on August 24, 1814, they destroyed the White House and many other government buildings.  They also set fire to the Capitol.  British soldiers, piled up furniture in the Capitol, mixed in rocket powder (yes, they had rockets back then) and set a fire, destroying much of the Library of Congress, then located in the Capitol, the Supreme Court, also in the Capitol, as well as the two Congressional chambers.  At that time, the Capitol was not even completely finished.  The only thing that saved the Capitol from complete destruction was a strong rain which put out the fire..

British sack of Washington DC 1814
Still the damage was quite serious.  Congress had to meet in a hotel for a time.  The following year Congress held its sessions in a brick building where the US Supreme Court now stands, until the Capitol could be occupied again in 1819.

For the next century, the Capitol itself was relatively free from attack.  There were a few shootings and brawls inside the building but no attempts to destroy the building itself.  There were also a few fires and small explosions due to accidents, but nothing deliberate. During the Civil War, Confederate forces never attempted to fire on Washington.  The Capitol remained safe during the war, and even got a new dome.

The 1915 Bomb:

In 1915, the Capitol once again became a target.  Former Harvard Professor Erich Muenter had lost his job a decade earlier.  He had to flee an arrest warrant for suspicion of killing his wife.  Despite the outstanding warrant, Muenter, using name Frank Holt, avoided arrest and continued living his life as a free man.  He had even received a PhD from Cornell University and began teaching there, with no one aware of his true identity nor the murder charges still pending in Massachusetts.

The German born Muenter became upset that the neutral US was selling arms and ammunition to Great Britain in its war with Germany.  The government and private New York financiers like J.P. Morgan were actively engaged in supporting the war against his homeland.

On July 2, 1915, Muenter began his mission.  He entered the Capitol.  Security was far more lax than today, especially when Congress was out of session, as it had been for months. Although the Senate chamber was locked, Muenter was able to access the Senate's reception room where he hid a package of dynamite under a telephone switchboard.  He set the dynamite to a timing mechanism, so that it would explode shortly before midnight.

Muenter then headed over to nearby Union Station where he watched the explosion, then boarded a train to New York City.

Because the explosion took place on a holiday weekend at night, there were no serious injuries.  Capitol Hill police were on duty and one had been in the room only a few minutes before the explosion. Fortunately, he left in time to prevent casualties. Damage was mostly limited to the Reception Room itself.

Reception Room of US Senate 1915
Sadly, the attack on the Capitol was only the beginning of a rampage.  The following day, Muenter went to the Long Island weekend home of  banking financier J.P. Morgan, knocked on the front door.  Morgan answered the door himself and received two bullets from Muenter's pistol.  Morgan survived the attack, however, without any serious long term effects.

Muenter was also suspected of attempting to blow up a New York Police Station and a transport vessel carrying supplies to Britain, although evidence indicates he may not have been involved in those two attacks.  After the attack on Morgan, Muenter was imprisoned and his outstanding warrants exposed.  He committed suicide in prison a few days later.

The day after the explosion at the Capitol, the building was again open to tourists, some of whom even saw the damaged room.  Repairs were affected rather quickly and Congress continued its work.  The US went on to declare war against Germany two years later, killing tens of thousans of Muenter's fellow countrymen.

The 1971 Bomb:

Men's bathroom, site of the 1971 explosion.
On Monday March 1, 1971, in the early morning hours, Capitol Hill Police received a phone call that there would be an explosion in a few minutes, in protest of the US invasion of Laos.  A few minutes later, a bomb went off in bathroom underneath the Senate Chamber.  The explosion took place when the Capitol was largely empty and there were no injuries, nor much damage beyond the bathroom.

A letter purportedly from a radical group known as the Weather Underground claimed responsibility for the explosion.  However, no individual was ever arrested for the crime.  Some have accused Bill Ayers the "terrorist" whom the Republicans accused President Obama of "paling around with" might have been involved.  Ayers alluded to the bombing in some of his later writings, but no actual proof of his involvement is known.  There are a few people who have accused the Yippies of involvement, although given other events, such an attack seems much more like something the Weather Underground would do.

Authorities repaired the damage relatively quickly and continued the war in Laos, killing many thousands of Laotians.

The 1983 bomb:

The 1983 bombing had a number of similarities to the 1971 bombing.  Minutes before the explosion, an anonymous phone call warned of the explosion.  The timed explosion went off around 11 PM with no injuries.  Once again, it was the Senate side that was attacked.  The bomb was hidden under a bench just outside the Senate Chambers.  It did mostly cosmetic damage to the immediate area that was repaired relatively easily.

The 1983 Capitol Bombing
The day following the explosion, National Public Radio received an anonymous letter which had been mailed prior to the explosion.  It was entitled "Communique from the Armed Resistance Unit."  The letter claimed the purpose of the attack: "We attacked the U.S. government to retaliate against imperialist aggression that has sent the Marines, the CIA, and the Army to invade sovereign nations, to trample and lay waste the lives and rights of the peoples of Grenada, Lebanon, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, to carry out imperialism's need to dominate, oppress, and exploit."  The letter also expressed for "FMLN/FDR" a leftist guerrilla group in El Salvador, as well as the PLO in the Palestinian territory.

After a five year investigation, six people were eventually arrested for the Capitol bombing as well as attacks on several other government buildings.  In 1990, Marilyn Buck, Laura Whitehorn and Linda Sue Evans were convicted of  conspiracy and malicious destruction of government property.  The Court dropped charges against three other defendants, who were already serving prison sentences for related crimes.

Following the 1983 bombings, Capitol Hill Police closed off more of the Capitol to the public and implemented use of ID cards for Congressional staff.  They also installed metal detectors for the first time for everyone entering the Capitol and attached buildings.

Other Actions:

In addition to these, there have been multiple failed attempts to set of bombs at the Capitol.  There are also  numerous shooting events, including the time in 1954 when Puerto Rican nationals opened fire on the House Chamber from the Visitors Gallery.  Five members were injured.  Of course, the most potentially damaging failed attack was the Sept. 11 airplane that crashed in Pennsylvania.  It is suspected that the terrorists were headed for the US Capitol.

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

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