Three days after a man rushed the White House with a knife, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was bombarded just now with questions from reporters about how the security breach occurred and what measures would be taken to prevent a recurrence. The president, Earnest said, is “concerned”—-understandably so, given that the intruder, Omar Gonzalez, actually managed to enter his house before being brought down by security. So are civil libertarians worried that “the people’s house” will become all the more removed from the people amid possible enhanced security measures. Then there are the tourists who may have to have their bags searched to get a close-up view of the president’s mansion, and the people who work near the White House and may have to face tedious screenings to get to their jobs if, as the New York Times reported this weekend is under consideration by the Secret Service, security checkpoints spring up as far as “a few blocks from the White House.”
But District residents have a different kind of concern, one that’s both more pedestrian and more fundamental: It’s annoying when federal government concerns make it harder for them to walk around their town.
The Home Rule Act of 1973 may have granted the District a limited form of self-governance, but it also delineated which parts of its home it would and wouldn’t be permitted to rule. Among the many things that would be out of bounds to the D.C. government: It couldn’t “impose any tax on property of the United States” or “enact any act…which concerns the functions or property of the United States.” In other words, the District should be grateful for the control it’d have over its territory, but the feds had their own turf within it, and the people of Washington, D.C. shouldn’t interfere.
The problem is what happens when that turf grows. (On the flip side, there can be considerable benefits to the District when it contracts.) Philip Kennicott has the architectural and cultural-landmark perspective on what’s lost when yet another once-public space falls to security fears. Petula Dvorak laments that enhanced security measures would create a “feeling of hostility, fear and paranoia that already pervades the heart of our nation.” Other concerns may be more banal, but they’re not insignificant: Downtown office workers accustomed to strolling to M.E. Swing for a cup of coffee that doesn’t say “Starbucks” or “Peet’s” could find themselves needing to take a lengthy detour or else face lines and bag checks en route. Same with people working west of the White House who commute on the 14th Street bus.
Do these inconveniences compare with a safety threat to the president? Of course not. But they do give Washingtonians who may already feel shut out by the government a sense that their city isn’t truly theirs.
Earnest says the Secret Service has “beefed up foot patrols along the fence line” and is conducting a further review with “a pretty broad look at a wide range of White House security procedures to ensure that the Secret Service is accomplishing its mission.” Perhaps stepped-up patrols will be enough; after all, serious breaches like this one are exceedingly rare. The Secret Service also can’t enact measures unilaterally, since, as Earnest points out, there are “overlapping jurisdictions,” with the National Park Service controlling land around the White House and the Metropolitan Police Department in charge of city safety.
But as the Secret Service considers “a wide range of factors” in improving security, as Earnest put it, let’s hope that the District’s sense of place is among them. The Secret Service didn’t do its job properly on Friday. District residents shouldn’t have to pay the price by losing yet another chunk of their city to security queues, bag checks, and the control of the feds.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery