Terror closes down America's Main Street

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington -- WELCOME TO Fort Washington, U.S.A.

Try to overlook the metal detectors, sharpshooters, iron fences, electronic sensing devices, radar, guard dogs, concrete bollards and army of cops.

We're in the age of the terrorist, the kook bomber, the wacko with a truck of explosive fertilizer.

And it's damned dispiriting.

Sure, Pennsylvania Avenue looks surreal in front of the White House. No cars move. Boxed in by concrete barriers and cement tubs of geraniums and by police cars.

For almost 200 years this was America's Main Street. Victorious armies marched here. Presidents reviewed inaugural parades. Aunt Matilda and Uncle Bert drove slowly by, snapping photos.

Nothing could panic us enough to close this boulevard fronting the White House to traffic -- not the assassinations of four presidents or two world wars or a civil war. Now in an edgy, jittery peacetime, America's Main Street has been imprisoned by concrete and cops.

It has the artificial weirdness of a suburban industrial park. The concrete beams, hastily fork-lifted in, look like a construction site gone bankrupt. Rollerbladers, cyclists and tourists rambled in the unreal space.

Mark up one for terrorists -- the world's safer for skateboarders.

"It's like a fortress," said Conception Picciotto, who has kept a peace vigil in Lafayette Park for a dozen years. "Piece by piece, they're taking away freedom."

Granted, shutting down Pennsylvania Avenue to traffic may be a sane precaution. And the inevitably maddening gridlock, daily jamming 26,000 cars onto side streets, creates no sympathy in most of America. Let the bureaucrats suffer.

But taking a disorienting walk along the almost silent avenue, I couldn't escape resentment that history had been stripped away, that the terrorists had triumphed.

And a suspicion that Somebody At the Top overreacted.

It's long been a cover-your-butt reaction by Washington's security bureaucracy to cordon off public buildings with more cops, metal detectors and concrete. For years Congress has fought off attempts to box in the Capitol with a metal fence.

After Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, Secret Service experts tried to persuade him to close Pennsylvania Avenue.

"Not on my watch," said Mr. Reagan.

So how did security zealots persuade Bill Clinton to barricade the nation's most historic avenue? Their arguments sound like Catch-22 illogic or a Bob Newhart routine.

A suicidal pilot last fall crashed a light plane against the White House while the phone was broken between the Secret Service and airport radar operators.

A nut-case pedestrian who envisioned the White House "rising in a mist" decided to save it by raking the mansion with semiautomatic bullets.

Notice that neither attack came from a car. Presto, the Secret Service honchos and a commission of experts decided to shut off car traffic.

The Oklahoma City bombing gave them a way to sell the decision to the public. Although the White House is 100 yards away from the street, experts scoffed at a checkpoint for explosives-toting trucks.

Secret Service Director Eljay Bowron repeated on NBC's "Today" show arguments he used to persuade Mr. Clinton to shut down the Avenue of Presidents: "We don't want to wait until after an explosion to close Pennsylvania Avenue. I've been convinced for some time it wasn't 'if' but 'when.' "

Mr. Clinton, who bristles at his security cocoon and jogs publicly, bought the pitch. He insisted, "I will not allow the fight against terrorism to build a wall between the American public and me."

His bravado sounds tinny. Security wizards admit it's nearly impossible to stop a terrorist, perhaps armed with a nuclear device, willing to sacrifice his life. You can imagine the Unbrave New World:

Will federal Washington from the Supreme Court past the State Department be barricaded by concrete and tanks against all but congressfolk and bureaucrats dangling dog tags? Tourists could eyeball their government only on closed-circuit TV.

Will the next president live in an anti-aircraft-guarded bastion at Camp David or the Mount Weather nuclear hide-out, ducking into the White House for rare functions?

Walking among the concrete barriers, I struggled to imagine this was the White House that Thomas Jefferson threw open daily to browsers.

I thought of Pvt. Tom Presnell, Minnesota First Volunteers, who at the White House door blurted that he wanted to shake Abe Lincoln's hand.

"To my utmost surprise, who should step out but President Lincoln," wrote Presnell in his Civil War diary. "Extending his hand, Mr. Lincoln said, 'Well, here I am, my man, you can do that now.' "

Never again. Terror has won.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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