The Secret Service screwed up Friday night. In a mind-boggling breach of security, a deeply troubled former Army sniper named Omar J. Gonzalez allegedly jumped the fence at the White House, sprinted to the front door and walked in with a knife in his pocket. It wasn’t until he got inside that a Secret Service officer guarding the door stopped him.
And now the Secret Service — which hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in the past few years — wants us to pay for its mistake, to once again intrude on more public space and make suspects out of millions of visitors, residents and office workers who come near the White House every day. To further encroach on the country’s most important values: our openness and our freedom.
The security gurus think they might want to keep people off the sidewalks around the nation’s most famous residence. Or maybe screen tourists a block away from the White House. They want to Anschluss even more public space to expand The Perimeter around 1600 Pennsylvania, amping up the fear and paranoia that already pervade the heart of our nation.
Given their druthers, of course, the security mafia would close downtown Washington entirely. Tourists could watch a slick “Inside the White House” video clip (in HD) at Reagan National Airport and pose in front of a cardboard cutout of the White House. Same thing for the Capitol and the Supreme Court.
All federal employees would telecommute. D.C. residents would be required to stay inside their homes. Toddlers would be banned from the city because one of them slipped through the bars of the White House fence last month, careening around the lawn a bit before being caught.
Oh, and let’s close down Cartagena, too, because no one’s safety can be assured in that Colombian city, as the Secret Service showed us awhile ago.
Even by Secret Service mess-up standards, this one was epic. On Friday night, the White House doors, which lead to a foyer not far from the first family’s living quarters, were unlocked and the snarling guard dog that officers have to take down intruders was never unleashed. On Monday, federal prosecutors alleged that Gonzalez had 800 rounds of ammunition, two hatchets and a machete in his car, which was parked a few blocks from the White House.
Political Washington is in an uproar about the unprecedented security breach, especially because President Obama and his family had left for Camp David about 10 minutes before it happened.
We’ve been doing this for years now, trying to solve our fear problems with fences, X-ray machines, magnometers, perimeters and dizzying traffic patterns. Have you taken a look at the bollard situation around the District?
The bollards — some cost thousands of dollars a pop — are like rows of stone and steel corn growing all around the government buildings we believe are important, the bounty from a fertile valley of fear.
When I covered federal park and land hearings in the District, I watched architects, rangers and museum curators regularly lose battles with the security experts, who closed off buildings, dehumanized visitors and cost taxpayers millions.
And then they’d have reports showing that despite all the measures, threatening people still got past guards and checkpoints because of human error. Oops! Officer Jimmy Joe Smith was checking his e-mail. Let’s build more walls!
I have some ideas about how we can fix this before shutting down more public space, before frisking the law-abiding folks who only want a selfie in front of 1600 Pennsylvania, which, by the way, they own.
Um, how about the Secret Service starts by doing what most ordinary folks around the world do? Lock. The. Doors.
Second, let’s do a better job of hiring and training Secret Service agents. And if you doubt that’s necessary, revisit that night in Cartegena two years ago when agents partied hard with prostitutes, then got caught because they tried to walk away without paying. Or Amsterdam this past spring, when three Secret Service agents were sent home after one was found drunk and passed out in a hotel hallway.
Agents are human. Some of them mess up. Let’s work on the professionalism of those without self-control.
Finally, why aren’t we looking at the real problem highlighted by Gonzalez, an Army veteran who did three deployments in Iraq, earned medals and came home with post-traumatic stress disorder?
The nation is losing at least 22 veterans a day to suicide. About 23 percent of veterans suffering from PTSD have been arrested since returning home. A veteran saluted the Capitol and immolated himself on the Mall a year ago. Gonzalez’s family members said he has been living in his car for two years and is mentally ill.
The Secret Service would rather punish the public and cover the butts of the officials in charge of keeping the White House secure than see this veteran’s distress and help do something about it.
Officials said Gonzalez was “concerned that the atmosphere was collapsing” and was trying to contact the president “so he could get word out to the people.” He may have posed a threat to the president, but he also served his country and needs help.
The president is often vulnerable. At basketball games, at H Street restaurants, in foreign countries. His protectors’ job is to do the best they can, then leave the rest up to the faith we have in humanity.
Making a mockery of our freedom and suspects out of our citizens is not the answer.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.