Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Tourism in a Police State

Pulled aside with ID confiscated and put in a holding pen by gun-toting men wearing dark glasses and with little curly wires snaking into their ears. If you think Green Zone check point or a prelim shake down prior to the next flight to Gitmo – think again. It’s what can happen to you on a tour of the East Wing of the White House – and it’s what happened to this blogger today.

I was told it was because my DOB didn’t match my SS# on the list of people scheduled to tour*, but when the Secret Service told me that at the final check point, I hadn’t yet given them my Social – only my driver’s license. I could see it on the guard’s face as soon as she looked up my name on the list: I was flagged even before I ever showed up – spit out by some database for some reason. And no, I am not paranoid. While I waited 20 minutes before they moved me into the pen, they asked none of the other tour hopefuls (all of whom had nice, safe Anglo-sounding, from-the-heartland names) for their socials. I also noted out of all of the 100s in line during the three-hour ordeal this turned into, none were obviously Arabic, or Muslim, and certainly there were no women wearing hijab.

Welcome to DC.

For several days now, I have roamed the Mall, the Tidal Basin, and the Memorials. You can’t really see any of these monuments without having to peer beyond the jersey barriers. They snake everywhere, and if it isn’t a jersey barrier, it’s heavy duty metal fences policed by flack-jacketed men. My particular favorite are the pop-up barricades that can be raised and lowered at will in the streets around the Capitol. There are men with police dogs everywhere.

The new DC monument: the jersey barrier

What all of this puts me in mind of is Budapest, circa 1970s. As a small child, I was terrified by the men who boarded the train toting guns to check our papers at the border. I was scared to death throughout our whole trip that at some point my father would be taken away by the police (as a former political refugee from this country, it was only a few years prior to our trip to see my grandparents that my father judged it safe enough for him to return). Like DC, every public place had men with dogs patrolling it – in this case Soviet soldiers. We had to show our papers when demanded to do so, we had to register with the government and we had to report where and when we were going within the country. We were not allowed to stay with any member of our family, and our movements were watched.

This was life behind the Iron Curtain. Although it would take another twenty years before the Soviet Union crumbled and the Soviet Bloc fell apart, already its satellites were challenging its viability. As the Soviet government felt more threatened, the more it tried to control its people: more dogs, more barriers and checkpoints, more random ID checks, more roughing up of people by the police and the military.

And now, here we are, subjected to the very same things in our nation’s Capitol – which for so long has been the symbol of the free world. As a child of a person who fled political oppression, it is extremely disturbing and depressing to see how rapidly our government has stripped away our freedoms and has become what previous US administrations and indeed our founding fathers vigorously denounced: a government governed by and governing through fear.

What it is most disturbing about the jersey barriers and the dogs, though, is not their presence, but that so very few question why they are there. Of all the American tourists that I poll as I wander around, no one thinks at all that this “security” is a sign of something very rotten and troubling about our government, its policies and its current global actions and positions. The standard response is of course that “they” want to harm us, and this is the price of freedom.

WTF??? How do jersey barriers maintain freedom? I don’t feel free at all. You don’t dare take your shoes off and cool your feet in the Reflecting Pool, you don’t find kids running around enjoying the grounds of the Capitol, you don’t dare take a picture of much in case they decide to hassle you. It bothers me at a very deep level that most people do not have the ability or the inclination to discern the profound disconnect, or to see that in fact, it is us, the supposed free citizens of this country, that are contained by the dogs, barriers and police.

It bothers and saddens me, but it does not surprise me. No one in this crowd of tourists of which I am a current member should ever dare disparage (but most almost certainly do) the German nation of 75 years ago or question how its government then terminated six million people, without the general population rising up in protest. Behold, here in our country right now is that very same seedbed that grows mindless acceptance by the masses of the oppression of the different, the singled-out, the faceless “other”. It is sown with the seeds of apathy, ignorance and blind faith watered heavily and well by a cocktail of fear, suspicion and intolerance brewed by a sophisticated and technologically advanced propaganda machine.

Although the Bush-Cheney regime created the police state in eight years – it's been in the works for far longer. I wish I had the belief that Obama can turn it around, but I think it is a juggernaut that is going to run him over as well as all the rest of us.

*To get on a tour of the White House, one must submit a request to a member of their Congressional delegation, or if a foreign tourist, through their embassy.


TwoYaks said...

I went to Washington when I was younger, and toured about there. We didn't need any advanced notice, permission or anything of that sort, so my family just wandered. It has to be some sort of crime that you can't do this anymore, that everything has to have security checks and all that comes with it.

And all this security is really no good. A half dozen motivated people can still make our lives terrible. But when hasn't that been true in human history?

Celia Harrison said...

Yes, this police state was created over a long period of time. The Bush regime is not as most people think responsible for even the majority of the problem. GWB was not as evil as GHWB. GHWB was one of the architects of what our country has become and his buddies used his son to execute their plan. There were democrats involved also, like LBJ. Then there is the shadow government: CIA, military-industrial complex, and all the other corporations. Thanks great post.

indigo said...

WOW! I was just there in February, it was fabulous, no hassles, no jersey guards. I did see a few men with dogs and some escorts for big black limos, one street was closed one day, other than that, we slid on the ice in the reflecting pool, scampered all over the lawn at the White House, took hundreds of pictures everywhere.............maybe try wintertime.

FlictheBic said...

I think it has less to do with winter time than the recent bombings in the Russian subway, the nuclear summit that is taking place next week and the fact that the past two weeks has been Cherry Blossom Festival - at least as far as the large # of dogs and men. The jersey barriers and other barricades have been up for a lot longer....

Deirdre Helfferich said...

Miz Flic, you wanna write up your travelogue in ER mag style and send it to your local friendly editor?

FlictheBic said...

Yo Deidre: As you can tell, we have been AWOL. If you want to reprint this in ER, by all means go may be a bit belated in the permish arena, if you are even checking our blog since we went silent...