In his farewell speech, President Ronald Reagan famously spoke about America as a shining city upon a hill. His eloquent vision did not include a fence, wrought-iron or otherwise, surrounding the city.
Colorado’s Capitol building, which sits on a literal hill, should not be walled off either.
After vandals caused more than $1 million in damage last year, state officials began looking at plans to build a fence for protection. The idea would be to incorporate an aesthetically pleasing barrier that provides functional protection.
The idea is not without merit or precedent. Just drive around Denver and look at some of the other government buildings in our city.
There is a good reason large, cement planters surround the federal courthouse. They double as a barrier to protect against vehicles approaching. That became particularly important after the Oklahoma City bombing.
But the situations are obviously different.
First, the Oklahoma City bombing was the act of two individual terrorists actively plotting the death of federal workers. The damage to the state Capitol occurred in the heat of the moment and was caused by a small group of people amidst a much larger, peaceful protest demanding fundamental change.
The first instance represents the gravest crimes in our country: treason and murder. The second — mass peaceful protests — is direct civic engagement at the core of our democracy. While some people took advantage of the massive crowds to engage in destructive behavior, it does not change the fundamental purpose of the marches. Peaceful demonstration on the massive scale seen last summer is the antithesis of terrorist attacks.
Second, and more central, the state Capitol is the seat of representation in our democratic republic. Putting up a barrier has the parallel message that the representatives within must be separated from the people they represent. That message is more destructive than any vandals.
Too often people across the state already feel too disconnected, too distant, too fenced off from the lawmakers cloistered within the Capitol. Building an actual wall turns that psychological barrier into a physical manifestation.
Even the most elegant fence would be a daily assault on the principles at the heart of government enunciated by our founders nearly a quarter-millennium ago.
The primary arguments for proceeding with a fence seem to center on conservative fearmongering and cost to the taxpayers. Last year as the election approached, many Republicans tried to use the damage at the Capitol as a rallying cry. The message did not resonate with voters outside their base, and Republicans’ political dissent continued.
Recycling the same message now seems to be akin to driving into the same cul-de-sac again and again believing it will morph into a through street.
As for the cost, it is a burden. But in comparison to the harm done to their constituents’ faith in the form of government they represent, it would be like cutting off an arm to cure a hangnail.
And there is little guarantee that a fence would have made any actual difference. In the aftermath of recent events, law enforcement appear to have rightly prioritized de-escalation and protection of human life and health. Consequently, a mob intent on making its way to the Capitol building would get there eventually, though maybe at increased cost to anyone injured at the fence itself.
Reagan’s speech closed by declaring America’s “still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the Pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
A fence around the state Capitol would only serve to stop that metaphorical journey. Colorado legislators should reject the plan lest they otherwise reject the eternal principles that the Capitol represents.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq