In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.
– Franklin D. Roosevelt, January 6, 1941
As the news media descended into their typical hyperventilation at the reports that Washington or New York might be the target of an attack on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I tweeted that I would take a run by several of DC’s monuments on the same day. (This isn’t really a big deal, as my usual running path takes me by most of those buildings, but that’s not really the point.) I would say, like everybody on the NFL pregame shows, that this was a way of showing that I “can’t be intimidated” by a terrorist threat. But I think it was as much a petulant reaction to the media’s overreaction: tell me it’s a bad idea, and I’m that much more likely to do it.
So when I woke up to a sunny, muggy, DC late-summer day, I laced up my sneakers and headed south to the National Mall. Instead of turning right, toward the Washington Monument, I turned left, toward Capitol Hill. Because if you can’t trust a random boast on the Internet, what can you trust?
You can’t walk up the steps of the Capitol any more, just as you can’t enter the Supreme Court across First Street through its main entrance. If you believe in the importance of symbolism, as I do, this is a major loss. The bunker mentality that pervades DC has the effect of making the government appear even further removed from the people. You want access? Fill out the right forms, talk to the right people, make your appointment, get in line. And don’t think about entering through the front door.
On the east side of the Capitol Building, three people stood: two in front of an American and Indian flag, and a third doing a human statue act of Jesus. I didn’t have time to ask if they were all together as I ran by, back down Capitol Hill.
To live in DC, or to visit any of its great public buildings, is to consent to being watched. Cameras are everywhere, some hidden, some not. It’s a city in which a helicopter buzzing the city barely warrants a look skyward; where you half-expect to see a sniper standing atop any building. Today, the tourists weren’t out in force, but the police were: MPD and Park Police, on foot, in cars, on horses. And a couple of helicopters.
As I turned toward the Potomac, running by the Jefferson Memorial, I noticed that today was the Nation’s Triathlon. On Ohio Drive, volunteers were taking down the American flags on either side of the finishing area. The Nation’s Triathlon benefits the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Some 200,000 people are killed by leukemia each year. They get a memorial today, too.
Meanwhile, the Lincoln Memorial is a perfect illustration of the new observation state (see slide 9). You can’t drive in front of the Lincoln Memorial any more; when you walk by it, you’re being recorded.
I hadn’t planned it, but I next ran by the Vietnam Wall. Being a superpower is expensive, in both lives and treasure.
Finally, I turned to the White House. The White House shows how our sense of appropriate security has been changing since the early days of the Republic. Not that having a public kegger in the White House was ever a good idea, but somebody in the Jackson White House signed off on it in 1829. Maybe it’s just in the nature of a big country to get more defensive as it ages.
Seven miles later, I got home in time to see the NFL’s official remembrance of September 11. As well-intentioned as it may be, it can’t give the dead what they want; all they could possibly want is one thing: not to be dead. All we can really do, if we really want to beat back the demons of those attacks, is try as hard as possible to lose our paranoia and fear. You can’t be at peace if you’re always looking over your shoulder.