Admittedly this is not a cheerful topic to bring up on a festive day as new members of Congress take their oaths of office.
But to twist an old saying, today could be the first day of the end of your life.
If you’re a new member of the House of Representatives from Mankato, Minn., you’ve chosen to move yourself and, in most cases, your family from a relatively safe place to a city that is the most likely target for a terrorist attack, let's say a biological scourge or a thermonuclear fireball that would wipe out the Capitol and all who work there.
Such a catastrophe is not unthinkable to members who were here on Sept. 11, 2001, when the Capitol building was thought to be the intended target of United Airlines Flight 93 that went down in Shanksville, Pa.
But for the novices, an attack that wipes out the city where they now hope to launch long congressional careers is a macabre thought.
Thinking the unthinkable
Rep. Tim Walz, D- Minn., said the potential for an attack on Washington D.C. and the risk to himself and his family did not cross his mind when he decided to run for Congress.
“I’m not one to dwell on that,” he said. “I do think there are prudent precautions; I’ve lived and deployed overseas (as part of the National Guard) and I’ve actually lived off base and there’s just a sense of taking precautions, I wouldn’t say paranoid. Just making sure you don’t follow the same routine. It’s not something I gave a lot of thought to; I would say when it comes to my family and my staff it’s something that I’m more concerned about.”
Part of the mental adjustment for Walz, who until Nov. 7 was a high school teacher in Mankato, Minn., is getting used to being an important person.
“One of things is trying to see myself as being important enough to have anybody do something” — that is, targeting him for a terror attack. “But I understand that I do represent and speak for southern Minnesota; I speak for 650,000 people.”
Another freshman Democrat, Rep. David Loebsack of Iowa’s Second congressional District, said the events of Sept. 11, 2001 have been very much on his mind because he has taught international politics courses at Cornell College in Iowa.
Loebsack took an all-politics-is-local approach to answering the Armageddon question: “Keep in mind that in my district we have a nuclear power plant, near Cedar Rapids. Of course that’s a potential target too.”
The possibility of being in a city under attack “didn’t deter us from coming (to D.C.) — although driving by the Pentagon yesterday I did think about it,” he said Wednesday.
Tampa, too, could be attacked
Like Loebsack, Rep. Kathy Castor, the new member representing Florida’s 11th congressional district, saw the local angle in the terrorist scenario.
“My district includes the port of Tampa, the largest port in Florida, and I live next door to MacDill Air Force Base, which is the home of U.S. Central Command," said Castor. "So my district has high potential — you don’t want to overplay it — but with the U.S. Central Command and a high profile port and the best airport in Florida. I was thinking more about what the impact (of a terrorist attack) would be there at the local level.”
Castor said she hasn’t pondered what would happen if this city where she’ll now be working were devastated by an attack.
“Frankly I’ve been thinking more about how to protect the folks back home and I’ll always look for opportunities here to affect policy that protects the port of Tampa and MacDill Air Force Base and other potential targets,” Castor said.
“For myself I didn’t consider it,” said Rep. Michele Bachmann, a new Republican member from Minnesota, referring to her personal safety being in jeopardy in Washington.
“But my husband considered it and my youngest daughter also considered it; they were very concerned and when they came here to Washington and saw security men actually holding machine guns, this is a whole new world for them. It doesn’t look much like Stillwater, Minn. to them.”
But Bachmann was still thinking in terms of personal assault and not an attack on the entire Capitol, “I am completely satisfied by the security. I was told by one of the members that there’s 3200 Capitol police, more than some small countries have in their army... I’m not afraid at all.”
As for an act of war that might hit this whole city, Bachmann said, “My concern is just to make sure we avert anything like that from happening, not just for my sake but for the American people’s.”
'Just part of the job'
To get the perspective of a veteran member, we flagged down Rep. David Wu, D- Ore., who showed up at the Capitol Wednesday in a spiffy green tropical shirt, having just arrived back in Washington from a family vacation in Hawaii.
“A lot of people put it on the line in various ways; you just do it,” Wu said. “I wish my family were further away, but I take this as just part of the job. A lot of people have taken a lot bigger risks than I have to do a job that the country has asked them to do.”
An attack that wipes out Congress is not a scenario that has been entirely neglected.
A bipartisan commission created by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution issued a report three years ago addressing the prospect: “If there were mass vacancies in the House of Representatives or large numbers of incapacitated members of the House or Senate, Congress would be unable to function for many months, leaving a vacuum in constitutional legislative authority,” the commission reported.
It called for a constitutional amendment that would either allow governors to appoint temporary representatives or allow replacements to come from a list of successors drawn up in advance by each representative or senator.
Congress hasn’t yet acted on that proposal, reflecting perhaps unwillingness among members to confront an event too grim to think about.