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Don't Go There

Center Stage This Week: An Impressive Show of Restraints

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2005; Page C01

The insecurity of high security used to be an essential part of the Washington you always dreamed of, part of the allure -- the patriotic show of safety, the federal dorkiness, the Washington of made-for-television movies. You were occasionally asked to go through metal detectors and have your purses checked and torsos patted, and it seemed less like ritual inconvenience and more like a slow but privileged conga line. Security checks used to feel like the pre-party.

People would strike important poses while being wanded because it made them feel like key Washington people, even though the most important people came and went through side doors and service hallways, and still do. A big show of security measures was on some level about the neediness and self-validation of Washingtonians. (As if danger would ever be drawn to the banal. We used to believe danger wanted to play dress-up. Office buildings weren't targets. It was the hotels and motorcades. The biggest fear was assassination, left over from the 1960s.) The waist-high police barricades and controlled access were crucial set pieces to the overall scene of the swankest of public-but-exclusive events. That's how you knew you were in the center of things, or close to it. Kissinger, potted ferns, bomb dogs, magnetometers, the ambassador, the queen, the flash bulbs.

A Park Police helicopter rests behind barricades near the Capitol last week. (Jason Reed - Reuters)

Closing a street was a civic act of affection: Washington loves you.

Helicopters and motorcycles once felt right, too, humming and choppa-chopping like background music, the sounds of when you first moved here as a summer intern. This was what the place was about, after all, and the abstract idea of danger only made it seem better. You'd tell your visiting relatives to look across the way, no, up at the roof of the hotel over there, no, no, up and to the left. Do you see him? See the sniper guard?

It was once possible to embrace this kind of thing, instead of feeling like it was being forced on you in arbitrary and hyper-vigilant ways. Forbidden Washington was different from the hair-trigger Washington of the Homeland Security era.

This was back when you thought of handsome Secret Service agents more like chorus members with earphone devices. High security was spotting the military officer who carried the "football" briefcase of nuclear launch codes on presidential trips. Low security was a thrill, too, such as the legend of John and Rita Jenrette in flagrante delicto on the Capitol steps. (The idea that you could once do anything on the Capitol steps! Any time! Even to just walk up them!) It was like living in an airport novel, in a city of people who love to read airport novels. We were wonky people who loved the higher ideas of law and code and protocol. Everyone's student council president moved here and moved around freely, like he owned the place.

You loved motorcades. You walked up to police officers and asked them who it was -- and back then, they would tell you.

People went to the White House. People still go to the White House, but nobody really wants to; it's scary now, and worse than that, it's an enormous security hassle for all but a few. Your peace activist friends don't like to hold prayer vigils on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the White House anymore. They used to love to get arrested; even that's too much of an ordeal.

What happened to Washington? Chain-link fences. Entire blocks of chain-link fences. We went from waist-high barricades to fences high above our heads. The inaugural dream sort of collapses here because not only did it require women in fur coats and men in cowboy boots and hats, it also required protesters getting up in their faces; now the precautions threaten to ruin the narrative.

Maybe it was too much fantasy interlaced with history. Like the story about Andrew Jackson inviting the people into the White House to have a chunk of a 1,400-pound cheese he'd received as a gift. Why do we love that story? Why do we tell it so much? For the simple idea that you could just walk into the White House?

Maybe protesters never really marched the streets with signs (signs on sticks -- just think of it, forbidden now). Maybe the inaugural parade was once just a parade, and people went, easily, without tickets or badges.

The Department of Homeland Security keeps telling us, in one way or another, with maps of street closures and rules about the size of the bag that you may carry with you, that we don't live in that Washington anymore; and it's true, we don't.

Real or imagined, you miss that city. Washington has become a thing of the past, because we've surrounded it in barricades of worry. The 55th presidential inauguration approaches, in a Washington that has taken on the rigidity of siege. The instinct is to go away from it, not toward it. (Or, as one protest group plans to do along the parade route: face the other way, "Turn Your Back on Bush.")

There are security lines and checkpoints and fences and Jersey barriers and rules, so many rules. There are questions to which you never get answers: How long? How many blocks? How come? Which way? How much? Who pays? Why? Instead of answers, you get orders. You feel like a sixth-grader asking about sudden changes to the school dress code. The motorcycles -- the specially ordered inauguration Harleys -- and the street closures and the rules against protests. It starts to feel like an insult.

And you worked so hard to never feel like an affronted person. Outrage was never your thing (and indignation only in rare cases). You try to glam it up and give the new security lingo a spin -- "So I spent most of the time waiting in mag-n-bag" -- but it's a depressing routine, worsening the more you're forced to do it.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, people who don't live here have asked you what it's like: What's it been like in Washington? With the recount? With the attacks? With the war? With the election? With the protests? What's it like in Washington?

Usually you could shrug, and answer: Washington is like it always was, which meant that it never got the best of you. But high security made the city ugly and that's what got the best of you. It made people ugly, too. It shunned dissent and, in the name of freedom, restricted freedom. Badges, tags, tickets, identification papers. You started referring to the city as a police state, ha-ha. You turned your back, made plans to leave. The safer it gets, the grayer it feels.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company