Once-dazzling innocence lost in billowing smoke

April 23, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

At the end of the bloody week in which Oklahoma City took America's innocence away again, sheriff's deputies at the Clarence M. Mitchell Courthouse here were watching everybody warily. They ran people through a metal detector, and then ran them through again at the sound of a beep, and then pulled people aside who were carrying strange things.

Now the machine was going beep-beep-beep. The man walking through it wore a business suit and a look of innocence on his round face. Come over here, said Sgt. Leopold Luberecki. The man had to empty all his pockets. He said his name was Bell. He pulled from his pants a knife with intimidating edges.

"I'm not getting arrested, am I?" said the man. "I'm not dangerous. I'm just here to get married."

Luberecki took the knife away and put it in a brown envelope for safekeeping while the man went off to find himself a marriage license. In a time of bombs that blow up entire buildings and take the lives of children, a mere knife is considered a relief. At this city's primary criminal courthouse, it's also considered routine.

"We're a little more careful since Oklahoma City," Deputy Sheriff Nicholas LoPreato was saying now as he watched people move through the metal detector. "Everybody's considered a risk. It's the best way to approach it."

In Oklahoma City, they continue to count the bodies, and in the places like Baltimore's courthouses, they feel fortunate merely to have to count weaponry.

"All kinds of stuff," LoPreato said. "Knives, razors, Mace, all kinds of drugs. Cocaine, heroin, crack. Yeah, they try to walk right into the courthouse with it."

"They forget where they're at," Luberecki said. "You tell 'em to empty their pockets, and there's a weapon, there's cocaine. You say, 'What's this?' They say, 'Uh, that's not mine.' "

Luberecki used to be with the city police bomb squad. He's been in law enforcement for 30 years. A few hours after the blast in Oklahoma City, some moron telephoned the Mitchell Courthouse and said he'd planted a bomb in the building. Luberecki was expecting the call.

"I don't know what thrill they get out of it," he said softly. "It's a sick mind, making these phony calls. But we're not finished. It's gonna come up again."

It's just the way some people live now, cashing in on every opening, every anxiety, every vulnerability in the national psyche. Oklahoma teaches us, as if we needed a reminder, that we need to suspect each other. We're now into our second decade of routine metal detectors at office buildings and security guards at public schools, which is long enough that we no longer think anything unusual about such precautions.

In this country, you now have to be a certain age to remember walking into a courthouse without being detained at the door. In this city, there are now guards at City Hall who will tell you, "It's always been like this," because they don't remember a time before 1976, when a man named Charles Hopkins brought in a gun and started firing, and killed a councilman named Dominic Leone, and changed what had been an open, convivial atmosphere where anyone could come in and casually talk shop with their political representatives.

At City Hall now, it's a two-step process just to get into the building: Sign your name, then go through the metal detector. A few weeks back, a guy tried to get in with a handgun in his pocket.

"Not gonna make it," said a security officer. "This machine will pick up a gum wrapper in your pocket. It'll pick up the foil in a cigarette pack. Or a penny in your pocket."

We've had a growing siege mentality in this country at least since John Kennedy went to Dallas, but the ante keeps getting raised. The guns raise it, and the casual crimes committed by kids who don't know any better raise it, and the bombing of a building will now take us to new levels of a siege mentality.

At 36th Street and Falls Road last week, at a 7-Eleven, a sign on the front door declared, "Only two students permitted in this store at one time." A sales clerk explained it was a defense against shoplifting. Half a dozen kids walked into the store. The clerk threw them out.

"Can't you read the sign?" she said.

"That's just on school days," one kid complained.

No. It's every day now. Down 36th Street at the Rite Aid, there was a uniformed security cop named Ed Baker. He had a nightstick hanging from one hip and a can of Mace on the other. He said Rite Aid has its own corporate police force. When did it happen that we needed police protection inside drugstores?

"We just want to let 'em know they're safe here," Baker said.

There was a time when no one would have presumed otherwise, not on 36th Street, not in America. The bombing in Oklahoma City is just a variation on a theme, a horrifying, cruel, bloody variation, but part of the modern fabric.

The damage in Oklahoma touches us all, and not only because our hearts break for the victims, but because we will now willingly give up more pieces of the freedoms we once took for granted: the ability to walk into a courthouse without being frisked, or the sense of walking past a cop on the street without sensing that each of us is now guilty until proven otherwise.

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