I am visiting the Capitol with an intern from my office. She is a high school senior. She is nervous, going to meet a congressional aide. She hopes to inspire the aide to work on a legislative solution to a concern of her's that she is working on in my office. She is unsure of herself, unaware that the seat of power our Capitol is actually "her" home. I am explaining to her, how I first came to Washington as a 16 year old high school kid. I was in a Presidential Classroom for Young Americans Program. I had my run of the Capitol. Riding the Senate underground trolley; walking the basement catacombs to legislative offices for meetings with my congressman and senators. Pretty heady stuff, for a kid who grew up in a neighborhood that still had farms on it.
In college, I frequently went up to the hill to see pols that I was working for, or with, on campaigns or legislation. I had already been an aide in the state house. I was wise now to the ways of power. After law school I spent significant time on the Hill advocating for better, fairer, laws for America. I spent hours underground at the Capitol, buttonholing Congressmen and walking with them to votes. Talking to them about Scleroderma funding or pending criminal law legislation.
I told Lara there was nothing to worry about. The Capitol was a stately and grand building so as to scare off foreign powers who may want to invade us. It was a home to us. We could walk its corridors and breathe in the liberty giving air.
We entered through the Cannon Building entrance. There we were met by three guards and a very sensitive magnetometer, that required I disrobe (or at least de-shoe) to get through it. Then we stopped at a congressional office and after what I consider to be a good meeting with the aide to Congressman Steve Israel, I thought we would go to the Capitol Rotunda to see the place where the Supreme Court once met, and where Presidents lay in state. We would take pictures next to the statue of one of the guys who represents NY in Statuary Hall.
As we came to the basement of the Cannon Building, we proceeded down the hall to the rotunda to get to the underground hallway that leads to the Capitol building; you know the building whose top is capped with "The Statute of Freedom". There was, at the entrance another Magnetometer and 4 more guards. Ok, I am not sure why, but I was more than willing to be stripped searched to get to the home of liberty. All of a sudden I was approached by a genial elderly lady in a red jacket.
"Sir, are you on a tour or with a staff member?" "No we are going to see the Capitol. I have been there often enough that I can give the tour. But thank you anyway" I replied, genially.
"Sir, You may not travel through the tunnel to the Capitol unless you are on an authorized tour or in the company of a staffer." She said with sharpness to her tone.
"Why not? I've been doing it for 30 plus years now." I said incredulously.
“Not since 9-11.” She said impatiently.
“Ok,” I said annoyed, “We will go outside and enter through the public entrance.”
“Sorry” a Capitol Police officer piped up, “You may only enter the Capitol in a tour or when accompanied by a staffer!! Regulations"
"That's ridiculous. I have already passed through a Magnetometer, and I am about to go through another, all for the privilege of seeing where the heart of my government works!”
Then she killed me. The little old lady in the red jacket stabbed me right in the heart. She said the exactly wrong thing to say to any real American (of which I am beginning to think there are few in Washington and fewer yet on Capitol Hill)
She said, “It’s for our safety, yours and ours…It’s better than being bombed.”
I looked at her hard for a moment. A thousand thoughts ran through my mind, such as:
1. I would rather be dead in the name of liberty than be herded like a sheep and led quietly to my slaughter.
2. How safe are we if can’t travel through 3 floors of a building and walk in its basement without being x-rayed at every turn.
3, My death would be a small price to pay for the opportunity to keep Americans free to walk through the halls of their government and have the same access to their lawmakers as the lobbyists and the corporate donors have to them.
4. I’m From Freaking NYC the number one city on the terrorist Hit parade, and even we’re not this freaking paranoid.
I looked at her as a crowd of people, staffers and Capitol Police began to gather. I did not feel that getting arrested was a good way to stand up for liberty while I was in charge of safeguarding a 17 year old. So I said in a quiet but strong voice,
“No, it is not better than being bombed, but for today, that lousy explanation will have to do. How sad it is that none of you know the words of Benjamin Franklin.”
And I took Lara’s arm and headed back to the elevator from whence we came. Sadder in the knowledge that a bearded "religious" fanatic, bent on destroying the fabric of our democracy had succeeded today.
When Clinton closed off Pennsylvania Avenue to motor vehicle traffic for the 2 blocks in fromy of the White House, I though it unfortunate, but as his family lived there, I felt like it was probably for the best. The man had their safety to worry about. My freedom to go to the president was not injured by the move, only my ability to drive by the house.
This is completely different. This is a travesty. It is an assault on democracy, perpetrated by our own government and its leaders who are too scared of some raging maniac hiding in a mountain, to remember why we elected them to office in the first place.
So back we walked out of the door of the Cannon building. We called our driver, and I asked him to drive us to the World War II Memorial. I needed to be around men and women who understood what the expenses of freedom are. We had to settle for their ghosts. It will have to do, for now…