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The Capitol Building as a Target

September 11, 2001

In 1833, Massachusetts Representative Rufus Choate captured the grandeur and symbolism of the recently completed U.S. Capitol Building. He wrote, “We have built no national temples but the Capitol; we consult no common oracle but the Constitution.”

In the years before and since Choate’s time, enemies of the United States have repeatedly chosen this “national temple” as a target for their hostilities.

In 1814, while the United States was at war with Great Britain, invading British troops attacked the Capitol and used books from the Library of Congress to fuel the fires that badly damaged the then only partially completed structure. Nearly 50 years later, in 1861, hastily recruited Union troops rushed to Washington to protect the Capitol against Confederate armies in their unsuccessful drive to capture the city. Another half-century passed before the next major attack. In 1915, as the United States asserted its neutrality during the early months of World War I, a German sympathizer detonated a bomb in the Senate Reception Room to protest America’s evident sympathies toward Great Britain. Again, in 1971 and 1983, protestors of American foreign policies set off explosives that caused significant damage to the Capitol.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, the Capitol once again became the target of foreign enemies. As two hijacked commercial airplanes thundered into the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center, and another flew into the Pentagon, a fourth plane—through the heroic struggle of its passengers—missed its intended target and crashed into a Pennsylvania field southeast of Pittsburgh. All 40 passengers and crew members on United Airlines Flight 93 perished. Subsequent investigations by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks discovered a high probability that the Capitol was the intended target of the Flight 93 hijackers.

News of the first strike against the World Trade Center reached the Capitol within minutes. In an unprecedented act, the Senate canceled its session moments before the appointed convening time. At 10:15 a.m., officials ordered evacuation of the Capitol and office buildings. While congressional leaders were taken to a secure facility, other members and staff were urged to leave the area amidst rumors that the Capitol was a bombing target.

Over the weeks and months that followed the terrors of September 11, despite unprecedented security enhancements, congressional leaders insisted that the Capitol remain open, continuing more than two centuries of service as the “national temple” of representative democracy.

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Reference Items:

Daschle, Tom. Like No Other Time: The 107th Congress and the Two Years That Changed America Forever. New York: Crown, 2003.

National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States.  The 9/11 Commission Report.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.