I just finished listening to the discussion episode for 'The Repairer of Reputations'. (I'm a little late to the party). I loved the story, and loved your discussion of it.
As you both point out, one of the most striking elements of the story is the 'Lethal Chamber'. I think the image might even be a sort of metonymy, providing an image of the whole in miniature.
On its surface, the structure is beautiful, if austere. ("In the centre of the garden stood a small, white building, severely classical in architecture, and surrounded by thickets of flowers. Six Ionic columns supported the roof, and the single door was of bronze.") What it contains is altogether darker. Moreover, an entire city block was destroyed to make room for the structure--its undesired ethnic inhabitants expelled. ("The block which had formerly consisted of a lot of shabby old buildings, used as cafés and restaurants for foreigners, had been acquired by the Government in the winter of 1898. The French and Italian cafés and restaurants were torn down"). That the area is now enclosed by an iron railing is also pregnant with meaning. Compare this to the world depicted in the opening lines of the story--a world of beautiful streets and beautiful buildings where bigotry and intolerance were "laid in their graves". A beautiful vision at first glance, but one that clearly hints at manifold horrors.
There's an interesting book called American Police Systems (link). It was written a little before 1920, or around the time of our story's setting:
"This study, which I undertook at the invitation of the Bureau of Social Hygiene, as a companion volume to European Police Systems, was practically completed when the United States entered the war in 1917."
"Bureau of Social Hygiene". Now that is a name that evokes dread!
The book does a good job of highlighting how anti-authoritarian Americans used to be--to the extent that even police officers violently rejected the trappings of authority. I really like this paragraph about the rejection of police uniforms:
"In nothing was the undisciplined attitude of the police more clearly shown than in their refusal to wear uniforms. Although by 1855 a beginning had been made by a few communities in the shape of regulation hats and caps, no city had at this time a completely uniformed force. "Un-American," "undemocratic," "militarism," "King's livery," "a badge of degradation and servitude," "an imitation of royalty " — ideas of this kind formed the basis of opposition to putting policemen in uniform. In New York the policemen were simply guards in citizen's clothes, armed with 33-inch clubs."
That some of their rebukes used anti-monarchical language is very relevant. Compare this America of the 1800's, where uniforms were viewed with suspicion by many, to the world of our story where soldiers in 'braided jackets' and 'jaunty caps' roam the streets with lances.
It wasn't until 1856 that policemen in New York adopted uniforms:
"Even when the New York police finally adopted a uniform early in 1856, it was not standardized for the whole force. Each ward had its own uniform as it saw fit. The summer uniform in some wards consisted of white duck suits ; other wards adopted colors ; some wore straw hats and some felt. In Philadelphia in 1856 the attempt to make the police even wear badges outside their coats met with bitter opposition. Only after much persuasion did Mayor Conrad induce them to adopt regulation caps, and not until late in 1860 did they put on complete uniforms."
The book also does a good job of showing us how "foreign races" (Italians, Poles, Irishmen, etc.) were seen as a threat to peace and order before the First World War:
"Homogeneity simplifies the task of government. Long-established traditions of order and standards of public conduct, well-understood customs and practices which smooth the rough edges of personal contact, a definite racial temperament and a fixed set of group-habits by which conflicting interests are more readily comprehended and adjusted — in short, the social solidarity and cohesiveness which come only from a common language and a common heritage — all these factors, so interwoven in French and English community life, and so essential in facilitating the maintenance of law, are utterly unknown in many of the towns and cities of the United States. Our larger cities, indeed, are often divided by more or less well defined lines into nationalistic sections : Italians, Chinese, Poles, Russians, Czechs, Slavs, each with their own districts, where they settle in colony fashion. Here, frequently in comparative isolation, they speak their own language, read their own newspapers, maintain their own churches and their peculiar social life."
These were not small groups, and the dread they evoked is palpable:
"In America — to use only a few illustrations at random — New York's foreign-born population is 41%, Chicago and Boston 36% each, Cleveland and Providence 34% each, Detroit 33%. This contrast can be emphasized in another way. London has 14,000 Italians among her foreign-born; Paris has 26,000. New York has 340,000; Chicago has 45,000. London has 45,000 foreign-born Russians; Paris 18,000. New York has 485,000; Chicago 121,000. Where Paris has 7,000 Austro-Hungarians, New York has 267,000. Where London has 27,000 Poles. Chicago has 126,000. London's 42,000 foreign-born Germans must be contrasted with New York's 280,000 and with Chicago's 185,000. New York's Italian-born population is greater than the combined populations of Bologne and Venice. She has more German-born residents than has Bremen, Konigsberg, Aix la Chapelle, Posen, Kiel or Danzig. Only three cities of old Austria-Hungary — Vienna, Budapest and Prague — have a larger Austro-Hungarian population than New York, while in Chicago the foreign-born Austro-Hungarians outnumber the population of Brunn, Cracow or Gratz. In only five Russian cities — Petrograd, Moscow, Odessa, Warsaw and Kiev — can a Russian population be found greater than that of New York."
These anxieties impelled the reformers, who sought to build a better world by confronting division in America...