WASHINGTON -- Tourists in front of the White House noticed a strange thing Saturday: Though it was a warm day, a man was walking around wearing a trench coat.
Tourists noticed this. The Secret Service apparently did not.
After the trench-coated man sprayed 20-30 rounds of semiautomatic rifle fire at the White House, tourists wrestled the man to the ground.
Tourists subdued the man, not the Secret Service.
What did the Secret Service do?
It said security at the White House is fine. Under review, but fine.
The Treasury Department runs the Secret Service, and its undersecretary for enforcement, Ronald K. Noble, was asked if the White House shooting represented a breakdown in security.
Noble made a sour face. "I think that's unfair," he replied.
Let me get this straight: A guy walks up the White House on a hot day wearing a trench coat, takes out an assault rifle, sprays numerous rounds of 7.62 mm bullets at the building while the president is on the second floor watching a football game, and has to be subdued by tourists, but it's unfair to suggest this was a breakdown in security?
What does Ronald K. Noble consider a good day for security at the White House? A day when the nobody inside is actually killed?
In that case, security is splendid, and we need do nothing else.
But for those who expect a little something more, perhaps we should take a serious look at security when a guy can crash his plane onto the White House lawn in September (the Secret Service had no idea the plane was coming, even though it had been picked up on radar) and another guy can pepper the White House with bullets in October.
I know what some will say: The Secret Service cannot be everywhere, and if a person really wants to trade his life for the president's, he probably will be able to do so.
But that doesn't mean we should just give up.
Let's consider that trench coat, for instance.
It's a hot Saturday -- people are in short sleeves -- but a man later identified as Francisco Martin Duran is marching around in a trench coat. A trench coat that turns out to have something long and bulky and sort of rifle-shaped beneath it.
The tourists on the sidewalk in front of the White House notice it, because they are out there.
The Secret Service agents don't notice it or don't do anything about it because they are inside their little booths or inside the fence.
But why? Why aren't they out on the sidewalk?
In dismissing the possibility that the Secret Service could be doing anything wrong, Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen had this explanation Monday for why tourists and not Secret Service agents tackled Duran:
"Of course [they did]," Bentsen said. "The civilians were standing beside him!"
Duh. So what's the next step, Lloyd? You want to buy a clue?
Here, I'll give you one: The Secret Service should be out on the sidewalk. Every day and every night.
I'm not saying that if agents see a guy dressed inappropriately that they should open fire. But I do suggest that they might want to chat with him a little.
(In 1988 in San Antonio, I spent several hours waiting in a hotel lobby for Jesse Jackson to show up so I could interview him. After about 45 minutes, two Secret Service agents planted themselves on both sides of me, asked me what I was doing there, asked to see my credentials and asked me to open my sports jacket to see if I was carrying any concealed weapons. I was not offended; I considered it good work.)
Stationing Secret Service agents outside the White House fence would also mean that tourists would not have to tackle gunmen themselves.
I think it's fine that they did. But Washington is dangerous enough without asking tourists to be prepared to throw themselves on top of armed felons. The most tourists in Washington should be asked to do is take cover.
I would like to be the first, however, to praise the Secret Service for its restraint. In neither recent attack on the White House have agents injured bystanders -- or even attackers.
But we should not confuse restraint with paralysis.
A note found in Francisco Duran's parka after his arrest reportedly indicated he wanted to be shot to death during a confrontation.
At the White House? Fat chance.