Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 05/04/11

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Getty Images
    A person takes a photo as an armored Park Police vehicle sits parked at the base of the Washington Monument.

    As we headed down to the National Mall on Monday afternoon to talk to passersby about Osama bin Laden’s death, we were pretty sure we knew what to expect.

    The Notebook anticipated that our television camera would capture the same jingoistic flavor of the demonstrations that broke out at the White House Sunday night, after President Barack Obama announced the news.

    For the most part, we were wrong. People we spoke with -- ordinary citizens and tourists -- felt some relief, but they knew the war on terror has a long way to go.

    We also expected heavy, even overbearing, police presence on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, on the National Mall and in the area around the White House. We’re glad to say we were wrong again.

    Tourists streamed into and out of the Capitol Visitors Center. There was no excessive line of police treating them like suspicious invaders. We saw one officer with a police dog walking by a group of tourists sitting on a wall. After the dog had done the proper sniffing, the officer allowed some of the kids to pet it.

    Maybe that was a violation of procedure (we hope not), but it put a human face on the security work the officer and dog were doing.

    Another officer was on foot patrol outside the Supreme Court. He waved off one car after another that improperly paused in the no-stopping zone to allow those inside to snap pictures. But the officer did his job with a professional air, neither scolding nor gesturing wildly at the tourists as some have done.

    And at the White House, officers from the U.S. Park Police and Secret Service Uniformed Division handled the crowds with measured competence. They watched quietly as a women’s peace group began chanting against war. A young Marine recruit in civilian clothes came up and shouted at the women. A police intervention would have riled up everyone. Instead, the incident was over as fast as it had begun.

    Now almost 10 years since the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it seems we are learning something about the tone and tenor of security. It doesn’t have to be stone-faced officers herding tourists like imminent threats. It doesn’t have to be barriers erected on every corner, snuffing out the very freedom that security is supposed to protect.

    Mayor Vincent Gray did the right thing. He and city officials conferred with federal officials and said they’d be on extra alert for a time. But Gray clearly said there was no “credible threat” that would cause a shutdown of city life.

    D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton praised the dangerous work of the nation’s military -- and the security forces here at home. But she added her own caution that in the battle against terrorism, freedom shouldn’t be a casualty.

    “For those who have been lost,” she said on Monday of military and civilians who have died, “let us also commit to fighting terrorism while maintaining the liberties and freedoms that form our core strengths and our core identity as a nation.”

    Norton has it about right. And the ubiquitous security forces seem to be learning that, too.

    • But not everyone.

    A few people point out that our Metro system reacted as it normally does to security incidents. Suddenly, booted men with nasty-looking assault rifles and black uniforms were strolling through the crowds. Metro police dogs showed up here and there.

    But it was mostly what some knowledgeable security officials dismiss as “security theater.” Everyone now knows there aren’t enough officers to have heavily armed guards patrolling like that at almost 90 stations. (They aren’t even effective in stopping routine crimes against passengers.)

    And surely there aren’t enough dogs to matter, either. So what is the purpose of this limited show of force?

    Metro hints that it knows more than we do; that its operations are designed to keep terrorists guessing. But while it looks both fearsome and substantial to some, many others say it feels meaningless.

    • Our airport adventure.

    We had the opportunity to travel last week before the big news about bin Laden.

    It was our first time to be singled out at Reagan National Airport for the full-body scan.

    But even this seemed routine and not too invasive.

    Although we weren’t told why the scanning machine had beeped about us, we headed to the private security room. A pleasant Transportation Security Administration officer carried our two plastic buckets that held the iPad 2, a belt, a cell phone, shoes and assorted other items from our pockets.

    Two Transportation Security officers conducted the infamous “pat down” in the privacy booth. Well, actually only one did. The other simply watched, noting something on his clipboard as we went along.

    The two officers barely spoke, except for the officer who did the actual pat down. He matter-of-factly announced what he was going to do and then did it.

    Although we’re not sure how necessary such actions are, it did take only moments before we went on our way. But we still felt as though a little bit of American freedom was left somewhere on that security room floor.