U.S. Capitol, symbol of freedom and democracy, stricken with anxiety over anthrax exposure
WASHINGTON (AP) – The mail-borne anthrax scare has raised the stakes and the costs of the war on terrorism. Confusion and fear at the Capitol illustrate the vulnerability of what has for two centuries been a symbol of open, democratic government.
Much of the vast Capitol complex was shut down Wednesday for testing after at least 30 people tested positive for exposure to the biological agent, carried on a letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
The anxiety spread to other elected representatives when an initial test proved positive in the Manhattan offices of New York Gov. George Pataki.
Lawmakers already were apprehensive. Many believe the Capitol was the intended destination for a hijacked airliner that crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside on Sept. 11. Three other hijacked planes destroyed the World Trade Center and seriously damaged the Pentagon, killing more than 5,000 people.
The preliminary results in the Senate intensified concerns over how many others in the Capitol’s 20,000-plus work force, 535 lawmakers and throngs of daily visitors might have been exposed. A thousand people were tested Tuesday; hundreds more Wednesday.
Over the past five weeks, congressional leaders have said they would not allow terrorists to stop the business of Congress.
But now an entire branch of the government has been disrupted. The stakes in the coming days are high, for the public confidence as well as the perpetrator’s ability to paralyze the U.S. government.
”You know, one of the things terrorists would love to do is take away our freedom and our liberty. Part of that freedom and liberty is having elected people, elected by the people, to do the work in this nation. And we’re not going to relinquish that duty,” House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Wednesday.
Anthrax has been found in three states and the District of Columbia.
Outside of Washington, four people are known to have contracted the disease and nine others have tested positive for the bacteria. One person has died.
The criminal delivery of anthrax to the Capitol complex ”will sharply increase the fear that now exists in the country,” said Lee Hamilton, former chairman of both the House International Relations and the House Intelligence committees.
The fact that so many people were exposed to the anthrax from a single letter ”shows an increased scientific sophistication” on the part of those responsible, said Hamilton, now director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a Washington-based think tank.
Hastert announced that the House side of the Capitol and three nearby House office buildings would be shut down until Tuesday for contamination checks.
Daschle said he would keep the Senate in session through Thursday, insisting ”We’re going to stay open.” But the gesture was largely symbolic, since Senate staffers were sent home so more checks could be made in Senate office buildings.
The Capitol complex, which had been one of the most open and visited of government landmarks, was essentially shuttered late Wednesday except to those with credentials.
”We’re in a battle with terrorism. It’s a new form of human warfare. It’s in our country, as well as other parts of the world. We have to fight back against it in the right way, together, with unity and with resolve,” said House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri.
Gephardt and other congressional leaders urged calm.
Thomas Mann, an expert on Congress at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, said it was important to remember that the disruption would be temporary.
He recalled that a powerful bomb devastated the corridor outside the Senate chamber in November 1983 and closed the building to the public for a while, but hardly caused a slowdown in legislative activity.
”It’s not shutting down Congress. They’ll reopen next Tuesday,” Mann said. ”Given their normal work week, it probably means missing a day.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Tom Raum has reported national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.
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