Last Friday, a man jumped the fence and rushed the front door of the White House. While he managed to just barely get in the building, the system worked– albeit imperfectly. Even if the President had been in the building at the time, there would have been no danger to him. Furthermore, the man was captured by the Secret Service without injury to himself or any officers. After a summer where issues of police overreaction have been hotly discussed, I think it speaks well of the Secret Service that they managed to resolve this without gunfire.
Allowing the fence jumper to get to the front door is clearly a matter of much internal discussion within the Secret Service, and it’s entirely appropriate that they review procedures, and if necessary, make physical modifications, to prevent a similar occurrence. However, this morning's Washington Post reveals that some of these proposals call for restricting pedestrian access to Pennsylvania Avenue, either by partial closures or bag checks a block away.
This is a disturbing idea, and District and national leaders need to call on the Secret Service to think of other ways to protect the President.
I’m not blind to the security threat. I once was my ship's Force Protection Officer in the Navy and was responsible for coordinating our physical security when in port. It’s a difficult and demanding job, where success is measured by the absence of failure. I’m sympathetic to those who are responsible for security on a level several orders of magnitude greater that I had to handle.
There are however practical issues for the District at stake here. Pennsylvania Avenue is a major east-west route for commuting cyclists, and a bag check would add a significant delay between downtown and Foggy Bottom (and, I understand, a certain coffee shop on Fridays). Even pushing back the fence line perimeter a few feet would create more conflicts between visitors who understandably wish to take pictures and cyclists who just want to get to work. For tour groups, there is a limited amount of motor coach drop off/pick up space, so any bag check or further delay on to what is a simple photo-op stop would add to the already not-insignificant problem of coaches circling around downtown, waiting to pick up their group.
I am, however, uninterested in approaching this as a District issue. This is an issue for all Americans. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is an iconic address, owned by the nation. We face the likelihood of being unable to approach the same vantage place as is pictured on the twenty dollar bill without waiving our rights to unreasonable search. In a capital city that has all too often locked up its democracy in a marble vault, this is one space that it is consistently a little messy and indicative of our complex reaction with the seat of power. From Conception Picciotto’s now-iconic thirty year protest, to hordes of middle schoolers taking selfies, this is an area for all of us, to interact without permission. If democracy means anything, it means that.
It’s not enough to stop these misguided security proposals. We have to look at them comprehensively, to take stock of what it means to be America’s capital. Do we want to stand with courage and openness or do we give in to fear? If elected, I want to push to do exactly that, to bring our dozens of law enforcement agencies to the table to rethink some of the decisions we’ve made to “secure” the capital. But for now, on the issue of requiring bag checks or otherwise infringing on the public space of Pennsylvania Avenue, I’ll just say this: no.