Sherwood's Notebook: Cue the Bomb Shelters…Again?

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 19: The U.S. Capitol on November 19, 2011 in Washington, DC. The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, or supercommittee, which faces a Wednesday deadline to reach a deficit reduction agreement, planned to meet over the weekend. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***

    Fear is a powerful thing.

    Into the 1950s and ’60s, fallout shelters were all the rage. One plan even envisioned a network of underground bunkers that would hold millions — millions! — of Americans. Children in schools nationwide practiced “duck and cover” routines under wooden desks, an exercise that seems comical today but at the time terrorized families.

    Flash forward.

    Fear is still with us. Only the names and threats have changed.

    And the bureaucratic impulse to “do something” is as strong as ever. Which brings us to the latest proposal to insulate the U.S. Capitol grounds even more from danger seen and unseen.

    The Hill is already a dispiriting barrier and bollard show, with only glimpses of its former self as a beacon of freedom and democracy.

    On Sunday, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney approvingly quoted former Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer on his idea to close off even more of Capitol Hill to the American public. Gainer would ban private vehicles and buy up surrounding private property to create a campus for Congress protected from truck bombs or other terrorist attacks. (But not, we guess, from things falling out of the sky or lobbed over fences and bollards.)

    Gainer, a former high-ranking D.C. police official, certainly has the public safety credentials to be taken seriously, and he has earned a lot of respect. It was his job — and remains his passion — to provide the best public safety possible. As McCarthy wrote Sunday: “ ... Gainer said last week in a wide-ranging interview that ‘safety must come first.’”

    We’d respectfully offer a different view.

    “Safety first” is a common corporate slogan. Our Metro buses and trains announce, “Safety is our No. 1 Priority.”

    But we all know “safety” is not first in our lives. If it were, we would be paralyzed with fear. Life as we know it could not exist.

    Safety is hugely important, but don’t believe the fearful rhetoric that safety must come first. Freedom is not free. We pay a price for it with our openness.

    “Fear is always with us,” Hillary Clinton says in her new book, “but we just don’t have time for it.”

    The Gainer plan would fence off more blocks of Capitol Hill, including 1st and 2nd streets. What would keep terrorists from setting up on 3rd Street? Or 4th? Or 5th? Would a terrorist bomb on 3rd Street be less frightening than one on 2nd?

    Where does this end?

    Maybe we should put the Capitol campus under a blast-proof glass dome. We then could peer at it like a terrarium, remembering when we once sang a proud national anthem that included, “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

    Gainer, the true professional, already has responded to some tweets critical of his proposals: “Tom, the idea is to open the campus, reduce traffic through the city, eliminate duplicative checkpoints.” Gainer says he’s up for full discussions on what should be done, and we’re all for that.

    ■ See the USA with the TSA. OK, only older readers will catch the jingle tune of that headline.
    Our just-completed trip to Orlando was filled with sun, refreshing tropical rainstorms, work, good friends, tasty food and the unavoidable cattle call at the Orlando airport.

    The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has to process 35 million passengers a year in Orlando. By comparison, Reagan National has 20 million.

    We were struck by the long lines that snaked toward the metal detectors. A terrorist attack there, before reaching the security station, would do extraordinary damage to life and property.

    But we also were impressed with the number of TSA agents simply doing their jobs with good humor and attention to detail. Given the never-ending stream of passengers, that is remarkable.

    The agent checking my boarding pass first tended to a family of four. The two children, each no more than 10, seemed swallowed up in the crowd pressing forward. The agent leaned over and spoke kindly to each child, asking their names and asking them to hold onto their very important tickets. The two fidgety children immediately calmed down.

    It was an act of kindness, and maybe the agent was checking to see if the children really were who they said they were. But in the drudgery of security lines, this agent and others made it almost bearable.


    Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.