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Freedom's Light Hidden Under A Security Blanket

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, September 8, 2004; Page B01

I was driving along Independence Avenue on Monday, headed east toward the Capitol, when I encountered the first of several security checkpoints -- a Jersey barrier adorned with a stop sign and manned by several U.S. Capitol Police officers.

I had already noticed that the motorists in front of me didn't seem to be saying anything to the officers, which struck me as somewhat un-American.

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"What are you guys doing?" I asked. One officer was giving the interior of my car a quick eyeballing when he replied: "Looking for bombs. You got a bomb in there?"

Like I'd admit it if I did.

"Oh, no, sir," I said respectfully.

"Then you're all right," he said and waved me on.

It was Labor Day, and the officer, like the rest of the checkpoint cops, could have been home relaxing with his family. Instead, the officers were obeying one of the most ill-conceived orders ever issued by Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer and Senate Sergeant at Arms William H. Pickle -- the establishment of at least 14 checkpoints on Capitol Hill in recent weeks, none of which makes anyone safer.

At a checkpoint behind the U.S. Supreme Court building, another officer smiled wryly and rolled his eyes when I asked what he was doing.

"Just looking," he said nonchalantly.

Another officer said he was "on the lookout for large amounts of explosives. That's as honest as I can be."

Asked how such a cache could be detected by a peek inside a car, another officer raised his hands and shrugged. He didn't have a clue.

What the checkpoints fail to accomplish in security, however, they make up for in traffic jams. Heaven help the city if there does come a time for an emergency evacuation.

Judging from the lack of protest, however, most people appear to have fallen for the false sense of security that the checkpoints provide. Watching drivers follow the orange signs directing them toward the checkpoints, "Constitution Avenue: Detour," I wondered whether suspending the Constitution would be as easy.

People seemed to do whatever they were told.

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