Thursday, December 31, 2009
#011: Jacob Chestnut, John Gibson, Stephen Johns
THE GUARDIANS THEMSELVES: Jacob Chestnut, John Gibson, Stephen T. Johns
Two millennia ago, the satirist Juvenal wrote of two men, prominent Romans, on a long trip away from the city. The first one lamented leaving his wife alone at home, as he feared she might not be faithful to him. The second boastfully stated that he had already provided for that difficulty by hiring a guardian to watch his wife and ensure proper behavior on her part. The first man looked at the second and laughed: "Who shall guard, then, the guardians themselves?"
That phrase (and a good one it is) raises the question of who can be entrusted with power.
But then, we must also take note of a second meaning to the phrase: who protects those who protect us?
Like most Americans, I usually view most public-security personnel as something between fixtures at best and annoying droids at worst. Who are these people who tell us to take our shoes off before we get into an aircraft? Why should I subject my computer to close inspection before I so much as enter the federal building? Do I really need to empty the change from my pockets before I walk through the metal detector? And (my pet peeve) why should I take my belt off of my ill fitting suit before I walk into a courtroom?
Security guards are the bottom of the public safety totem pole. They don't get no respect. They don't go on adventures with cool equipment like soldiers; they don't have the glamor and babe-attraction qualities of cops. We usually ignore them. We often get annoyed at them. We decry their necessity as fundamentally anti-freedom.
And yet, once in a while, not often (thank God) we are given reason to remember them and be thankful that they're there. They're the white corpuscles of the public immune system, and sometimes, they go from fixture to hero, and we ask ourselves why we never appreciated them before. Their heroism is instantaneous and comes and goes in a flash, and we ask ourselves why we never saw it before.
We never saw it before because they were the very definition of The Tattered Remnant: silent, dutiful, often bored, but ready to act in an instant when called for, and in so doing, showing the hidden gold within.
SHOOTING AT THE CAPITOL, JULY 24, 1998: JACOB CHESTNUT, JOHN GIBSON
In the summer of 1998, I was working on Capitol Hill, in its grungiest, most out-of-the-way attic: the top floor of the "O'Neill House Office Building", located at 2nd and C Street, down the road a block from RNC Headquarters and well separated (like plague bacilli) from the rest of the Hill.
At the time, I had just graduated from law school, and was working for Subcommittee on the Census, helping (I thought) maintain a constitutional, head-count-derived census for the upcoming apportionment cycle and looking forward to a long, successful, money-making career as a Very Important Person.
The O'Neill Building was a dump. It was an ancient building, built originally as a hotel for Congressmen to stay in when they were in town (this was back the days of yore, before elected Members bought homes with mortgages in DC and their home districts). Later on, the building was bought by the House of Representatives outright to serve as extra office space, and to serve as a home for the high-school-aged Congressional Pages (who, I should add, were extremely well guarded and closely watched).
The offices of the Subcommittee on the Census was on the highest, and crappiest, floor of the building; the furniture we were provided looked like they came from an Anacostia garage sale. The Census Subcommittee was on its ten year cyclical uptick of staffing, as the 2000 Census was then fast approaching; but since it was only important two years a decade, they never got any decent diggings.
My office mates were an interesting crew. The Committee Chief was a sixtysomething demographics expert, a wizard well versed in the ancient and dark art of redistricting. His assistant was a porcine, sly, self-important, Machiavellian political operative whose self-opinion far exceeded any of his nominal talents.
The chief counsel--i.e., head lawyer--was the very attractive brunette wife of a senior GOP fundraiser; her assistant, a squat, ugly bottle-blonde with a foul mouth who I think was the model of J.K. Rowling's Dolores Umbridge. This woman owed her position to the fact that her older brother was high in the House staff leadership, working for Tom DeLay, The Hammer, then the third most powerful man in the House.
The mapmaker was a tightlipped, angular Boston Irishman, a true computer geek (in the best sense of the word) who did not say more than five words in the two years I knew him. Our press secretary was the sad, slightly boozy, soon-to-be-ex-wife of a prominent New York neoconservative scion whom I am sure you've heard of; her press assistant was a very-light-in-the-loafers gladhander with a Sinatra fetish. There was a rotating stream of volunteers and interns, mostly young, blonde, and very pretty; one was a flower of New Orleans who we all called "Beeee-yeth."
Then there was myself, probably well out of my geekish element, with an overly long staff title and too little to do. But this was a good thing as it gave me the opportunity to study for the upcoming bar exam without too much difficulty.
Working on the Hill was cool. I got to shake Newt Gingrich's hand once, and later met Dennis Hastert. Important "Members" (the official title of sitting Congressmen) came in and out of our office every day and we learned to know them on sight. Occasionally major fund contributors would come into the office for High Level Meetings With The Honcho, to which I might occasionally be invited.
I used to pat myself on my back for being in such important company. I hardly gave the guys at the front door gate, the poor rentacops in the cheesy uniforms, a second thought.
On July 24, 1998, I was at home, preparing for the Bar Exam, which was only six days off; it was not going well. I was desperately reviewing my very expensive and overpriced Bar Bri Bar Review Materials, and trying to memorize the difference between the Rule Against Perpetuities and The Rule in Shelly's Case (neither of which, BTW, I have ever had occasion to use once in the course of my legal career).
At about 3:45 in the afternoon, and suddenly, without warning, I felt my heart race. Something was wrong. Something had just popped up... and I didn't know what it was. I walked outside. I walked back in. I called my wife on her cel phone, to make sure she was alright (she was). I called my mom–ditto. I went inside again, sat in front of my Windows 3.1, DOS-driven computer with the Laserjet III printer and the $2000 scanner, and stared at it, playing with two floppy disks.
I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't work. Something was wrong.
I turned on the radio, which I kept tuned to WTOP-FM, the All-News, All-the-Time Talk Radio Station.
"Shooting at the Capitol!" the voice shouted. "The Capitol Building and all Capitol Hill buildings on the House Side have been shut down following a shooting on the grounds. At least one is dead, two wounded. Stay tuned to WTOP for this developing story!"
It appears that a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia thought that he needed to express his opinion to the individuals behind the voices in his head. Driving straight through from Montana to Washington in a day and a half, he tried to enter the Capitol Building's main structure through the Documents Entrance, a staff-only entrance on street level. On entering, when asked to walk through a metal detector, he immediately drew a weapon and shot Capitol Police Officer Jacob Chestnut, a twenty year veteran of the force. He died instantly. The man then charged for the nearest official looking corridor on the first floor.
He chose the main office area for the Majority Leadership of the House. The exact door he barged through was that of the Majority Whip, Tom DeLay.
There he met Detective John Gibson, whose gun was already drawn.
They exchanged pistol fire. The man put multiple rounds into Detective Gibson, wounding him fatally but not instantly. Gibson responded, hitting his target with every round, gravely wounding the gunman and rendering him (as they say) "ineffective." The shooting was over in less than a minute.
Officer Chestnut gave his life with practically no warning or preparation. However, his life was not lost in vain. The sounds of the shots that killed him gave Gibson an opportunity to draw and charge his weapon, so when the man entered into his area, he was able to respond instantly. He disabled the shooter, and subsequently died of his wounds.
Behind the main door guarded by Detective Gibson were Whip DeLay and a dozen or so staffers, who, following proper procedure, dropped behind their desks to avoid being targets. None were hurt. Among those dozen was the elder brother of the girl in my office.
It was like 9/11 in the sense that it was one of those moments where the ordinary are revealed to be extraordinary. The security people, Capitol policemen, and others responsible for maintaining security went from zeroes (in the estimation of those working on the Hill) to heroes overnight.
Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson lay "in honor" (not "in state", but practically the same thing) in the Capitol rotunda, a gesture never before given to the non elected. Furthermore, Jacob Chestnut was the first African American to be granted this privilege.
The day of the funeral, thousands of people, including yours truly plus almost all of those working on the Hill at the time, stood at attention as the motorcade drove their flag-wrapped coffins from the Capitol to Arlington National Cemetery, where they were buried with military honors.
I certainly never met Detective Gibson; he was assigned to the VIP detail and the area he worked I only entered once, long after the incident. On the other hand, I am sure I probably saw Officer Chestnut at the O'Neill on one occasion or another. However, I don't remember having done so. So much the worse for me.
The shooter was never charged; a mad man, he was consigned for life to a Federal facility for the criminally insane. He remains there to this day. This is justice; paranoid schizophrenia I would not wish on my worst enemy. Let him never be free, but let him not be punished.
I look back now, lo! these ten years later, with wonder.
They're all gone, now.
All those Very Important Persons ... all the powerful I knew ... dust in the wind.
Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert are "former Speakers." Tom DeLay was forced to resign by a means of an faux scandal for which he was never prosecuted, only indicted (which is enough if you're a Republican, alas).
Our chief was forced out after Newt Gingrich's resignation as Speaker. His assistant, who engineered his removal, found himself back in the pack of the House staff, denied his former boss's job. He haunts the Hill to this day, ineffective in the minority, still waiting for a second chance that will probably never come.
The fundraising husband of our chief counsel was convicted and sent to prison because of his connection to the Jack Abramoff scandals. The brother of her assistant, he who hid in Tom DeLay's office during the shootings, was also convicted in connection with Abramoff and as of this writing awaits sentencing. Both ladies are gone as well. Nobody loves you when you're down and out.
Last I heard, only Bee-yeth survives and thrives on the Hill; she is now RNC Chief Counsel at 34.
Oh, yes, and somewhere in there I lost my Hill job too. (Cue best Ms. Piggy falsetto: "Bit-ter? Moi?")
Even the O'Neill House Office Building is gone; it was demolished in 2002. They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot.
Sic transit gloria mundi–-
Today, it's all Democrats, all the time, on Capitol Hill. All of them are so important, now, you know. Things will never change. They'll always be in power, now, and forever, amen.
Yet somewhere in a quiet spot near the Documents Entrance of the House of Representatives there stands a plaque, in memory of two quiet heroes, Tattered Remnants who gave their lives for those far less worthy of honor than they are.
THE HOLOCAUST MUSEUM ATTACK, JUNE 12, 2009: STEPHEN T. JOHNS
Forgive me for leaving Mr. Johns as almost an afterthought. He deserves better.
Let me say this of his sacrifice, which was much like Gibson's and Chestnut's.
On June 12, 2009, an evil old man, a black-hearted racist and Jew-hater of the lowest sort, tried to invade the United States Holocaust Museum. (I forget his name.) The man, who was 88, decided to commit 'suicide by cop'. He brought a rifle to the front foyer of the Museum and tried to blast his way inside.
The shooter was met straight up by a half-dozen security personnel. He shot and killed Stephen Tyrone Johns before the other guards (who were, alas that it is needful, heavily armed) responded and shot the man, disarming him. The man survived and awaits trial for murder.
Stephen Tyrone Johns died later at a hospital. He was 38, and left behind a wife and son.
Like Gibson and Chestnut, he gave his life for the peace and good order of the United States, protecting a building that has become, of its own, a shrine worthy of the highest respect. And like Chestnut, his sacrifice allowed his comrades-in-arms to bring this armed invader down before he was able to harm a visitor.
Thank you, Stephen Tyrone Johns.
Thank you, Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson.
And thank you to everyone who ever had to stand on their feet for a full eight-hour watch being sneered at by the muggles that they protect.