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.

"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.

Driving near such symbols of American democracy as the Capitol, the Library of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, I felt that the nation was being transformed before my eyes. I recalled snowy days in years past when my son and I would slide down the unshoveled steps of the Supreme Court. Try that now, and we'd both be in trouble.

Gone was access to the steps on the west side of the Capitol, where we used to ride bicycles and oblige tourists who wanted their photos taken with the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial in the background.

There was a time when that magnificent vista from the west side of the Capitol represented the nation's endless possibilities and the hopes and dreams of the American people. Now it's gone, cut off from view, just another blind spot in an ever shrinking concept of democracy.

While America sends soldiers off to fight and die for the freedom of others, here at home we are becoming Fortress America, where freedoms are being relinquished without thought or question.

The nation's greatest symbols of freedom and democracy are being protected -- or so it seems -- but in a way that has changed the meaning of the symbols.

Except for the dissent of a few freedom-loving residents of the District, there has been virtually no opposition to turning every monument to freedom and courage into a walled-in testament to fear. And if those symbols cease to represent the land of the free and home of the brave, who is going to care whether they stand or fall in the long run?

Indeed, reliance on ugly, intrusive and ineffective checkpoints suggests that some people have already ceased to care.

At one checkpoint near an entrance to the Capitol, I asked another officer how he could tell if someone was driving with a bomb. "If it doesn't feel right, it's probably not right," he told me.

The same could be said about what was happening to the nation's capital.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com