Tourist site? Crime scene? Both.

October 4, 2013

By-standers take pictures near the scene of Thursday’s shooting close to the U.S.  Capitol. (Credit: Christophe Itsweire)

What happens when a tourist attraction becomes a crime scene? In this day and age, when massive lock downs and supreme shows of force by law enforcement feel like they are the norm, sometimes you can’t tell the difference. But have we become so desensitized to the images of recent violent events that we’re willing to overlook tragedy  just to get a cheesy vacation memento?

Thursday, as officers swarmed Constitution Avenue following a fatal shooting of a woman who had led authorities on a car chase from the White House, tourists made a beeline to the Capitol grounds like it was any other day. Some Hill staffers headed to the Metro, trying to decide where they’d go for happy hour. Another couple people had to be stopped by Capitol Police from walking their dogs right onto the scene of the crime.

It was a bizarre scene that reminded me of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film “Apocalypse Now,” in which Navy sailors are surfing the shores of Vietnam during the middle of a napalm airstrike along the coast. In a moment that was gripping some people in fear, others were more concerned with their photo op or daily routine.

At 3:15 p.m., on Delaware Avenue NE, a woman walked right up to the check-in gate on the North side of the Capitol with her digital camera. A guard screamed at her, “MA’AM, PLEASE GET BACK! THIS IS A CRIME SCENE!” The woman replied, “I just want a picture.” “I SAID THIS IS A CRIME SCENE. SHOTS. FIRED. PLEASE GET BACK.” The woman took a step away as to get the guard out of the frame, clicked, and walked away, seemingly pleased.

When informed of what was going on, the woman and her husband, retirees from Minneapolis chalked up the scene to the gun culture of America. “I’m in shock, but I shouldn’t be in shock,” Jan, who didn’t want to give her last name, said. “Because guns are so easy to obtain with no background checks.” At the time, many had presumed that the shots fired came from the suspect, not the authorities. “We were invited to see our senator this morning. So, thought we’d at least walk up here,” she added. Ho hum, apparently.

At Louisiana Avenue and Constitution Avenue NW, where the global media was gathered for an afternoon press conference, things took a more grim twist. One man, a tourist with a DSLR camera and a telephoto lens, flipped it around and smiled while he clicked off a series of shots with police tape and emergency vehicles in the background. Fifteen feet away, a couple smiled as they took a selfie with an iPad, while a man in a SWAT Team outfit walked by with an assault rifle. I guess it’ll make a lovely postcard.

Kathryn and Damian Smith, in town from Chorley, England were spooked, but couldn’t seem to shake their gaze upon the ongoing crush of blue and red lights. “It’s surreal. It seems like a little bit crazy, but all of a sudden when you hear the shots that’s when it becomes real. You see police walking around with the guns. We don’t see that, you see. It’s a little … whoa,” Damian said.

“It’s your gun culture, really. We were well aware of it,” Kathryn added. “Just seeing your policemen walking around the streets with firearms, is for us, quite scary, really.”

Tourists continued to stream by, looking to get a first hand view of what happens when everyone thinks elected officials are under attack. As the day went by, fewer were willing to admit why they were posing for pictures at a crime scene. Maybe they didn’t truly understand the reason themselves.

But just two weeks after the tragedy at Navy Yard, a similarly unpredictable scene had become a sideshow to many. Few seemed genuinely concerned about what actually happened.. A woman had been shot at 17 times before losing her life with a child in the backseat. The bystanders wanted to be a part of it, no matter how ghoulish their involvement may have been.

Or perhaps they just wanted to document what they consider to be the true American experience: The one they see on TV everyday.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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Tom Jackman · October 3, 2013