A drive along the beautiful George Washington Parkway across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., offers a spectacular view of the nation's capital. Heading north from Alexandria you can glimpse the gleaming marble of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and off in the distance, the Capitol dome. From that vantage point, everything looks much like it did before last Sept. 11.
But continuing on the parkway just past National Airport make that Ronald Reagan National Airport as you approach the Pentagon, the scene abruptly changes. The Pentagon exits are blocked by "Jersey barriers," those ugly, low-slung, concrete-lipped walls that have become ubiquitous in the D.C. area because of their reported ability to halt trucks that might carry bombs.
Even more disturbing than the Jersey barriers are the machine guns: manned, loaded, clustered in a nest atop two camouflaged jeeps and aimed at the passing traffic 24 hours a day.
The jeeps, staffed by highly trained Army personnel, are parked well within firing range of both northbound and southbound traffic. They are accompanied by an ever-present police force cruising up and down the shoulders of the road with blue lights flashing and illuminated by road crew-sized spotlights at night waiting to pull over any truck drivers unfortunate enough not to know that they are barred from using the Parkway because someone might attempt to strike the Pentagon fortress again.
Venturing into the District itself offers more indications that the nation's capital is in a perpetual state of lockdown. Jersey barriers ring the base of the Washington Monument and are lined up like sentinels outside federal buildings and museums whose street names Independence, Constitution are eerily ironic now.
And the "people's house" at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. has not only closed its tours to the vast majority of this nation's people, but the perimeter roads that are closed around the White House seem to be constantly expanding in circumference "for security purposes," gridlocking downtown traffic even more than usual.
On the far side of the Mall, between the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court, are not only more Jersey barriers and police presence, but also a hideous wooden wall that entirely obscures the view of the impressive Capitol dome from passersby. Access to the east side of the Capitol grounds is cut off, making it impossible to take a direct path from the Senate side to the House, or vice versa, from outside the building.
And though the building has reopened for tours, Capitol police have changed the game plan to eliminate the all-day lineup spot where throngs of tourists used to wait for guided tours each day, within sight of the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. In their place is a work crew, shielded from view behind that big brown wall, removing century-old trees "for security purposes" and as part of a project to construct a massive underground visitors' center not scheduled to open until 2005.
The metal detector and rent-a-cop businesses are booming in the region, and it is not uncommon to come face-to-face with a black-clad sentry with his rifle resting atop his lap in the rear of a black SUV outside the State Department. As part of new security rules, visitors are barred from bringing bottled water into the Capitol and women in pursuit of culture must have their purses searched when they visit the National Gallery and other museums.
In recent weeks, a mentally disturbed man shut down the entire Smithsonian Metro station for hours and forced the evacuation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture building after stopping his car in traffic, stepping out into the roadway and mumbling gibberish about explosives.
Immediately following Sept. 11, all garbage containers and newspaper recycling boxes were removed from Metro, the region's subway system, for fear someone might toss in a bomb. The result, before the recent slow arrival of bomb-proof containers in the last month, was an awful lot of litter left on trains and in stations, including a greasy bag that once contained french fries and caused a jittery passenger to push the emergency button.
The take-off and landing patterns of National Airport aircraft have forever shifted, and while strict security measures that include National Guard and police dog presence have allegedly been put in place at all airports, a woman (me) was cleared through Baltimore-Washington International in early November with a forgotten pair of scissors tucked in her purse.
In incongruous juxtaposition with the unheralded security measures is the prevalence of the flag and accompanying patriotic messages. Now-faded stars-and-stripes still hang from many overpasses in the suburban neighborhoods outside D.C. along with many painted-sheet messages, including one that oddly says "Freedom Lives." Huh?
Businesses display marquees that proclaim, "We will never forget," while announcing their current 10 percent-off sales, and protruding from vehicle side windows, the U.S. flag competes for wind-whipped attention with Redskins banners and, occasionally in Virginia, the Confederate flag.
But does all this in-your-face patriotism and visible security mean we are any less vulnerable than we were before the terrorists slammed airplanes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center? Before still-unapprehended murderers sent death-by-anthrax through the mail, and in the process contaminated the Hart Senate office building and the Brentwood postal facility, where two workers died and many more complain they are still ill?
President George W. Bush would probably say yes. This from a man secure in the "people's house," with its growing perimeter of cut-off roads; a man who will travel for the rest of his life with a detail to secure an area before he arrives; a man whose entire family will be similarly protected.
And he believes we need even greater measures more concrete bomb shields mucking up the view of what is normally a lovely city, more walls and fences, more guns and guards, more screening of mail, less access to public information, more government power and secrecy to protect the "freedom and security of the 'merican people," as the new commander-in-chief of homeland security is so prone to say.
But ask the family members of the victims of sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo. Funny how every theory about the snipers was blown. It turns out they apparently were not highly trained marksmen and did not have intricate knowledge of roads in the area. They also did not drive a white truck or van, and were caught, literally asleep, at the wheel of a highly suspicious-looking, beat-up Caprice that had attracted the attention of police multiple times before.
The snipers targeted normal folks who were out and about without Secret Service escorts. Folks who were shopping, vacuuming the car, waiting for a bus. And neither Jersey barriers, nor security guards, nor especially flags and slogans could save them.
Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln still occupy prominent places in this city. But one cannot help but think that these architects of freedom would be no less than horrified to see what "let freedom ring" means to the nation's capital in the post-Sept. 11 world.