The eighth-graders from Indiana bounded off the bus at the U.S. Capitol, where they stood attentively on the lawn as their tour guide pointed out the 9-million-pound dome and where the president stood at the inauguration.
Then they spotted their scrapbook moment: two U.S. Capitol Police officers walking toward them, assault rifles strapped to their chests.
Cindy Robinson is next to photograph the Indiana group. The possibility of seeing sharpshooters on the White House roof had students talking.
(Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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"Can I take a picture of your gun?" a student shouted. The officer smiled and stopped to ask where they were from and about their trip.
But the students were far more engrossed in their own questions -- "What kind of gun is it?" one asked. "You ever use the gun?" asked another before the officer wished them well and strolled away.
As the National Cherry Blossom Festival and the spring tourism season shift into high gear this weekend, District officials expect more visitors than in any other year since Sept. 11, 2001. Yet the precautions borne of terrorism -- the street closures, the Jersey barriers, the heavily armed guards -- have become as much a part of the Washington experience as a trip to the Lincoln Memorial.
On any given day, out-of-towners can see Secret Service agents standing on the White House roof. Police cruisers park outside the gated driveways to the Capitol. Heavy concrete barricades protect virtually all public buildings and monuments, from the White House to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to the Jefferson Memorial, where a police cruiser sits in a parking lot no longer open to the public.
Then there are the ever-present metal detectors and bag searches, which lead to long lines at museums and make a quick stop a near impossibility, particularly for large tour groups.
"It has added a lot of time. We can do less in a day," said Norma Newpol, a professional guide who has been leading tours since 1971. "Instead of running into the Library of Congress for a half-hour, it takes a half-hour just to get in the building. To us, who have known the difference, it's distressing."
Outside the White House last week, Craig Kincaid, 43, a firefighter visiting from California, groused after a police officer, without explanation, ordered a small crowd to move away from the fence bordering the South Lawn. The precautions, Kincaid said, create the impression that "Washington, D.C., is open but it's closed. You can go here and there, but the sites that are important are bottled up."
His friend Shannon Hale, 52, a public school administrator from Grass Valley, Calif., said she found the presence of security overbearing and even unsettling. "I feel not as safe. I feel less at ease," she said. "You feel watched -- you notice all the cameras."
Not everyone is troubled. After their stop at the Capitol, the Indiana eighth-graders boarded their bus for the short trip to the White House, where their tour guide, Ruth Croan, said as they pulled up, "We have to look up at the roof to see if there are any sharpshooters."
Those reminders of security help educate the students, said the youngsters' principal, Mike Robinson, who was on the trip. "These kids need to see what life is like," Robinson said. "It tells you that times have changed."
Across downtown, security concerns have spawned a sprawl of construction projects. An imposing wood fence surrounds the East Front of the Capitol while crews undertake a $470 million project that includes an underground visitors center, scheduled to be completed next year. For six months, the Washington Monument has been fenced off as crews install vehicular barriers. The monument is to reopen this week, although the grounds will be off-limits until June.
Closed for 11 months for the construction of security upgrades, Pennsylvania Avenue at the White House reopened to pedestrians in November. With slender, waist-high barrier posts and guard booths at both ends, the security measures do not appear as imposing as others, which was the architect's intention. "The overall idea was that you didn't know it was a security project," said Matthew Urbanski, a principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, a New York-based firm.