This essay was originally published in the September, 14, 2001 issue of Isthmus.
We were standing near the visitors entrance to the White House Sunday morning, taking in the pleasant weather and historic ambiance, when a buzzer began bleeping with annoying insistence. Police officers who had been idle a moment before slipped into guard-dog mode and began ushering us to a far corner of the tree-lined corridor.
Confession: I hate being bossed around by cops, particularly when I'm minding my own business. I obeyed, but found myself absently mulling the periodic authoritarian nature of American street life when a motorcade rolled by within 15 feet of us. Some Third World tin-pot dictator coming for brunch? No, the familiar face in the limo waving at Hannah, my 10-year-old daughter, was George W. Bush himself.
Damn! My first thought was to berate myself for not being sharp enough to have whipped out my camera when the alarm began ringing. My second thought: Any crank could have taken a clear shot at him. Or tossed a bomb.
Such are the risks, I realize a few days later, of an open society.
The next morning, on Monday, Hannah and I take the long walk from our hotel past the White House and Washington Monument, down the Mall and the various Smithsonian galleries to the Library of Congress. My daughter wants to see what she's been told is 535 miles of bookshelves. Can we walk through the Capitol?, she asks. Okay by me. I mean, how many times have I taken a shortcut through the Capitol back in Madison?
But Washington isn't Madison. Police stanchions block off the back of the Capitol. We're directed to walk around to the front, where it's the same story. The steps are empty. The hubbub of the streets, the sweet hum of people moving freely to their own desires, is noticeably missing. How do we walk through the Rotunda? With steely indifference, an officer points off to the distance, toward a tiny green flag where a line of people waits patiently to take "a self-guided tour."
I don't think so. Biting my tongue, I politely tell him no thanks. Has the simple act of walking through the people's Congress become a matter of state security?
On Tuesday morning, we're back at the White House for a tour arranged by 2nd District Rep. Tammy Baldwin. Her chief of staff, Bill Murat, is accompanying a dozen or so Badgers for the 8:45 visit. We see the Red Room, the Blue Room, the dining room, etc. A drive-by tour, for sure, but a special moment for my youngest daughter.
Still, I'm vaguely annoyed. No photos, we're firmly informed, are allowed indoors. Another security matter? Or is the White House trying to cover up how unflattering the portrait of John Quincy Adams is? I'm too humbled by the setting to ask what gives, but Murat tells me the photo policy is even more restrictive than he remembers it.
Then, all of a sudden, the cops go into guard-dog mode again. They're snapping at our heels. Get moving! Head away from the White House! Hurry up! Everybody out of here!
Boy, I hate this stuff. In my book, one of your basic rights as an American is not to be bossed around by people in uniforms. I choose, however, not to raise an objection at this moment. Murat looks puzzled. White House staffers he knows are running away -- literally fleeing -- from the building while we amble toward the sidewalk. They look scared.
"Something big is happening," Murat says.
The cops keep pushing us farther and farther away from the White House, to the edge of Lafayette Park. There's a loud pop in the distance, like fireworks on the Fourth of July. Soon after, the faint smell of sulfur is in the air. Car bomb or mass hallucination -- who knows? All I know is that my luggage is sitting in the trunk of Murat's car in the now off-limits White House parking lot, a way station before Hannah and I catch an 11:25 flight. Forget about it.
By now news of the World Trade Center immolation is spreading through the crowd. We join a growing flood of office workers walking steadily away from the White House. The roads are jammed. Sirens knife through the air. Stores lock their doors. We walk back to the hotel. As I begin writing this, I look out the hotel window to see smoke lazily rising: The Pentagon is burning a few miles away.
For anyone who loves civil liberties, these are scary times. Our Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure has already been compromised by 30 years of deprecations from the War on Drugs and past terrorism scares. Check your civil liberties at the metal detector. The palpable horror of the Sept. 11 assault will only create a greater demand for the authorities to control and command our lives.
But absolute security and a free society are incompatible. Our liberty is threatened as much by a thousand pinpricks to our privacy and free movement as it is by a terrorist's bomb.
Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Marc Eisen is Isthmus' editor.