As I approached the grandiose marble Capitol building in Washington DC that very first day, I had absolutely no inkling of what to expect in my six week fellowship in Congress.
Silence was the overarching theme of those auspicious first weeks. The corridors of power were confusingly empty – the suits and high heels characteristic of the wardrobes of the power elites were nowhere to be seen, and most of the office chatter dominated by tales of vacationing in Barbados or scuba-diving for the first time. Congress was out of session, the legislators from the House of Representatives busy back in their own districts – fundraising or re-connecting with their local area.
But then, a few days before the fireworks of Labour Day weekend, there came fireworks of a different kind from Syria’s direction – diplomatic fireworks. This was the spark that revived the United States Congress, and for the next few weeks I was in the midst of some of the most important historical events of the year. Since arriving back home, many people have commented on how ‘lucky’ I was to have visited at such an interesting period in the nation’s capital – but I doubt whether I should feel lucky to have profited so handsomely from other people’s suffering.
The response to the Syrian disaster was intriguing – here was the most pacifist President of recent times, a man who won the Nobel Prize for his significant work towards strengthening international bonds, suddenly having to decide how to respond militarily against another country without UN approval. As the month went on, it grew increasingly uncertain whether Obama would be able to win the support of Britain, Congress, even his own people. The President had to push for a military response despite having fought his first presidential election on an anti-war platform, supporting a rapid withdrawal of troops from the Middle East.
The Obama administration was truly cast into woeful disarray for a few weeks, until Putin somehow came in and saved the day – I hesitate before making such a comparison between the Russian President and a superhero, as he isn’t exactly a man well-known for his diplomatic skill and zeal for peace. But for a time, be it a delaying tactic or a genuine attempt to try to find a happy medium, he managed to keep every party (relatively) content. The deep-seated distrust that those in Congress have towards Assad and Putin’s intentions was difficult to shift; President Assad had just defiantly announced the fallibility of the Pentagon’s evidence in an interview with Charlie Rose, only to later admit possessing chemical weapons and knowing their exact whereabouts. I found it incredible how quickly the focus of the nation changed after Russia’s suggested resolution – the red line that had been so painfully conspicuous was now rapidly fading from sight.
After a few weeks of reflecting on violence in a foreign nation, a tragedy struck much closer to home – the Navy Yard shootings that happened only half a mile away from Capitol Hill itself.
It was a bizarrely disjointed day – as I approached the Capitol just after nine o’ clock, the police presence has been ramped up significantly. As the day went by, I saw police dogs checking each car before allowing them to pass through the barriers, I saw burly men carrying machine guns and wearing bullet-proof vests patrolling the area. Half an hour after I left the building early, Congress was locked down for the remainder of the workday, the police having to forbid staff and members of the House from leaving.
It was another tragic episode in the history of the United States – one of the worst mass shootings in recent times, it was a blow to many millions of the country’s citizens. For many in Washington, the closeness of the event was particularly devastating – an opportunity perhaps to remember the day of 9/11 back in 2001 when the Pentagon was attacked. Many Hill staffers and legislators still shudder at the thought of the United Airlines Flight 93 which, had the hijacking attempt not been foiled, would have been headed directly towards Washington’s Capitol.
Here over the Atlantic, we often debate the bewildering gun laws of the United States, but what is difficult for many of us to comprehend is how central guns are to the constitution of the nation, and to an extent, its whole existence. It has developed to become a quasi-human right, on the same level as healthcare and education, that everyone must be able to defend themselves in the case of emergency. Making even a minor change to the law – much easier said than done, it seems – would be a matter of changing the mindset of a whole nation.
My time in DC was an inspiring one – and though the breaking news was always fascinating, those headlines which so dominated every television channel and newspaper across the world, the small things had an effect as well. Experiences such as chatting with the widow of a deceased 9/11 pilots about her lobbying attempts to regulate airplane companies more carefully. Listening in on the comment line in the office to listen to the hundreds of constituents calling to voice their concerns about intervention in Syria. Following the discussions in the office with various stakeholders about the cuts to SNAP – also known as food stamps – that would affect millions of children, pensioners, and families under the bread line.
This is politics in the flesh. Syria was on front of every newspaper for a few weeks. The shootings in the Navy Yard closed Congress and many local schools for the day. But the small issues persist – policies mulled over for years, for decades. Matters that may seem small compared to the news of the day, but issues that affect lives, for better or for worse. This is politics.