In 1961, to keep East Germans who were under communist rule from escaping to the West, the East German government constructed a wall, complete with barbed wire, beds of nails, guard towers, and other ways to keep the people from leaving East Berlin and entering West Berlin, where they could live in freedom.
For decades, the people of East Germany were literally walled off from freedom as they looked sorrowfully at the barrier that had been constructed to keep them under control and without a say in how they were to be governed.
More than 100,000 people tried to scale the wall to be free once again, but only a few thousand made it successfully. It was not until 1989, two years after then-President Ronald Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikael Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” and the Soviet Eastern Block started to crumble and eventually collapse, that the infamous and foreboding wall came tumbling down.
Tragically, in the aftermath of the regrettable January 6th riots conducted by a misguided and irresponsible group of angry citizens, the area around the U.S. Capitol has begun to look more like East Germany before the wall fell. Americans, like the East Germans before them, can only look on with sorrow and shock.
The U.S. Capitol, the “people’s house”, along with other buildings such as the Supreme Court and Library of Congress, is presently surrounded by a massive fence topped with barbed wire. National Guard troops are in place around the buildings to keep people from advancing into the area. When I see what has happened to the area, I cannot help but think of not only East Berlin in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, but totalitarian strongholds such as Communist China, Cuba, and North Korea, whose unaccountable leaders are partitioned off from the people.
I am all for personal safety and taking prudent steps to protect people from the dangerous actions of an irresponsible few, regardless of their political ideology. But I am deeply concerned about the future of the very freedoms America has represented for nearly 250 years if this fence remains.
My concern is the message this fence sends to the American people and to other countries. To the American people, it sends a message that their elected leaders want to deny them access to their government and its leaders.
I am reminded of the comments that then-Senator Harry Reid made when the new Capitol visitors center opened in 2008. He remarked rather disdainfully, “You could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol. That’s no longer the case.” That type of statement, coupled with physical barriers such as this fence, is sadly symbiotic of why many Americans feel increasingly alienated from their leaders.
Why? Because the refusal to remove the fences, which were only supposed to be temporary until the inauguration of President Biden, adds to the impression of the American people that their leaders want to have nothing to do with those they are elected to represent, a.k.a. the great “unwashed masses.”
To the world, the fence also sends a message that America is no longer a country founded on “by the people and for the people.” We have forgotten the very foundation upon which our nation was built. Instead of being seen a shining city on a Hill (or Capitol Hill), and as a constitutional republic where our officials govern with the consent of the public, we are increasingly perceived as a cold fortress that dictates to the people what freedoms they can and cannot have, according to the circumstances of the moment, including access to their government buildings and lawmakers.
I cannot help but think back to our Founding Fathers, many who endured tremendous hardship, including physical threats, to set up the freest nation on earth. They saw no need to put up barbed wire around Independence Hall while debating the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, even when they knew they would likely be executed as traitors if the colonists lost the war for independence. But because they believed so much in freedom, the founders were willing to take that risk.
I wish our current leaders were as courageous as the Founding Fathers were or then President John F. Kennedy was when he remarked in Berlin, just two years after the wall went up, “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.” Yet, sadly, in 2021, our leaders have forgotten those words and put up this fence to keep the citizenry out while locking themselves in.
Unfortunately, unless the fence that separates our government from its people comes down soon, I am afraid we may be on the road to lose other freedoms as well as accountability from our leaders. That would be a shame – for us as Americans – and for the world. So, to echo Ronald Reagan, “Speaker Pelosi, tear down this wall!” so America can continue to be a beacon of freedom to all.
Photo from Sipa USA/REUTERS