Insecurity measures in the nation's capital

August 06, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WASHINGTON -- All these tourists, wilting in the steam-bath afternoon heat as they arrive at the steps of the glistening U.S. Capitol, are turned away long before they can get near the building. They should know better by now. There are iron barriers around the place, and roadblocks everywhere, and heavily armed police inspecting vehicles at checkpoints all over town.

"Used to be, you could just walk into this building," a visitor says.

"Used to be," replies Officer Brian Doninger, one of a team of police guarding the Capitol's steep back stairway. He glances away from the building, toward the long, grassy Mall leading to the Washington Monument. "But a couple of crazy people with box cutters changed that."

Now you can't walk into the Capitol without a specific appointment. Or you have to line up early in the morning and hope to get one of the limited number of spots on a guided tour. We have to accommodate ourselves to the new realities. We have to learn to celebrate America's precious freedoms by cutting ourselves off from the ones that don't seem to work any longer.

Security's been this tight at the Capitol building since the terrorist attacks. But it was further tightened around town when Department of Homeland Security officials this week announced threats to financial institutions here and in New York and New Jersey.

So you have police around the Capitol standing guard and looking, says Officer Doninger, for "anything suspicious."

"Like what?" he is asked.

"Like people taking a suspicious number of pictures," says Doninger.


A few blocks from here are all the great buildings making up the Smithsonian Institution. Now they put you through metal detectors before you can enter. Some years back, we learned to put up with this at courthouses and police stations, where presumably dangerous people move about. Now they're searching little old ladies at museums, and worrying about tourists taking "too many" photographs.

Around town, police have moved to set up 14 vehicle checkpoints and close up a large swath of First Street NE, a major thoroughfare. They're talking about barring trucks from 15th Street near the U.S. Treasury Department. Mayor Anthony A. Williams says: Wait a minute, what about the disruption to ordinary life? To tourists, to businesses, to people who live here?

Thus does democracy struggle between theoretical trouble and practical life. It turns out, the threat that set off the current anxieties came from information several years old. Why the need to announce it now? What do they want citizens to do about it? Last we heard, they just wanted us to go about our usual business. But this is not so easy around here.

On Third Street NE, below the Capitol, Robert Studevent finds a parking space -- a miracle! -- and cools off for a few moments in the late afternoon heat. Studevent is 81. He has driven taxicabs here since 1946.

"This," he says, "is the worst. This morning's rush hour, it was almost impossible to move. It's bumper to bumper all around the Capitol and the White House. You want to avoid that, you've got to drive five miles out of your way. It's never been like this, never. I don't get paid for time, I get paid for spot to spot. And now it takes you an hour just to get one mile. For what?"

"What about the terrorist threat?"

"Oh, I'm not worried about that," Studevent says. "I've been beat up, cut up, shot, had my cab taken from me. Had a woman stab me one time. It's a dangerous world, sir." He smiles wanly. "That's all. It's a dangerous world."

Studevent's lucky. He can reduce the terrors of the age to the ordinariness of the traffic tie-up. Others have to wonder: What should we do with information several years old? Leap into action? Or chalk it up to political grandstanding?

"I don't have the luxury of questioning motives," Mayor Martin O'Malley was saying at midweek, at Baltimore's City Hall. "They tell us we've got new threats; I've got to take that at face value. If they're talking about Washington, well, what happens if terrorists get thwarted there, and nearby Baltimore's a secondary target?"

A week ago, O'Malley addressed the Democratic National Convention on such matters. He has been a high-profile critic of the Bush administration's failure to adequately fund anti-terrorism efforts at home.

"In my mind," O'Malley said, "another attack on America is inevitable. I'm not sure why it hasn't happened yet. We've moved forward so little since the first attacks. We're not getting the money we need. There's no sense of urgency about our critical infrastructure.

"What Bush has done well is frame the issue politically -- he's the guy most willing to invade other countries in the name of terrorism. What nobody's said is: Who will make the investment to protect this country from more attacks? We want to believe 9/11 was a once-in-a-lifetime attack, but I don't think that's realistic."

So there's the conundrum. Around the nation's capital, the traffic's backed up and Congress is under armed guard. Police are suspicious if you take too many pictures, and guards frisk you at museums. We're protecting our freedoms by checking them at the door.

But the flip side is this: The country's vulnerable. And we think we can protect ourselves with something as puny as a roadblock, or a metal detector, or cops blocking citizens from the building where they're trying to figure out where we go from here.

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