Washington, D.C. is under attack!
OK, that’s always true in the figurative sense. But during a recent trip to Our Nation’s Capital — or Gomorrah-on-Potomac, depending on your viewpoint — it seemed to be a military reality.
Me and the Mrs. braved the Jersey Turnpike and the Capital Beltway to pay a visit to my little sister Mary, who lives just outside the district in the Maryland ‘burbs. It had been many years since we last did the tourist thing down there and our first time back post-9/11. I say back because we lived inside the Beltway in the mid-’80s when yours truly was a congressional staffer.
Yes, I wore three-piece suits (ties, socks, shiny shoes, the whole nine) and carried a briefcase with a copy of the Washington Post tucked under my arm. Ah, my salad days. (Are they called salad days because you can’t afford meat?) Back then, I had the run of the Capitol. Could take family members into the House chambers in session, ride the Senate subway, you name it. (They thought me quite cool. Well, back then, anyway. I think.)
Well, things have changed quite a bit since then. Just a few hundred feet from the Capitol South subway stop you reach C Street, which parallels Independence Avenue on the south side of the House office buildings. The whole time I was down there I never saw a car on C Street. Even so, right where C Street cuts across New Jersey Avenue we spotted a built-in movable roadblock the likes of which I’ve never seen before.
“Times have changed,” was the terse explanation offered by the United States Capitol Police (USCP) officer standing guard.
The view out on the East Front, which looks across the bucolic east lawn to the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court, was more startling still. The place was crawling with cops, I mean USCP officers. Walk up the Capitol steps? Yeah, well, only if you’d like a close encounter of the deadly kind with one of the folks in blue hefting an automatic assault rifle.
When our son was little we used to enjoy walking around the House side to the West Front promenade. If you’re not impressed by the view looking down over the Mall, flanked on either side by the Smithsonian buildings and stretching out all the way to the Washington Monument, you ain’t no American. That stone terrace is now out of bounds to all, except, of course, one of the weapons-wielding officers.
You can still take a tour of the Capitol, but only by descending into the $600 million subterranean visitors center cleverly camouflaged by the east lawn.
After doing our best to look like the harmless camera-toting tourists we were, we sauntered down Capitol Hill and past the reflecting pool. (No machine guns there, but is that an overflow spout or a periscope?) It’s a short walk to the Air and Space Museum, which had once been our son’s favorite. See an actual Apollo space capsule, Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Wright brothers’ plane and touch a moon rock? How cool is that?
Not so cool should someone bring in a bomb. Which is why visitors pass through a security check virtually identical to what passengers on international flights encounter. So I put my vest in a bin, with my camera bag, my belt and the contents of my pockets for their ride through the X-ray screener before I hastened through the metal detector. I could keep my shoes on, however.
After watching an amazing IMAX movie about the Hubble Space Telescope we headed back to the Metro for the Red Line ride out to Shady Grove, just a short drive to my sister’s townhouse. Hey, look, no armed guards.
Yes, times have changed and Washington doesn’t shine as much as I remembered. That’s a pity, but unfortunately unavoidable, I suppose.
With highly contentious and overly emotional congressional mid-term elections less than six weeks away — elections that could well determine the path the Obama administration follows in the two years leading up to the 2012 presidential elections — I can’t help but wonder: Are the guys with the guns protecting us from the wrong collection of crazies?