I spent Thursday and part of Friday at the ACT! for America National Conference and Legislative Briefing in Washington D.C. I missed the Wednesday night cruise on the Potomac — I got out of here too late to make it in time. But on Thursday I attended the legislative briefing at the Capitol and the luncheon that followed it at the Capitol Hill Club, at which Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff was one of the speakers. She and I had to miss some of the later conference sessions back at the hotel, since we were fortunate enough to book a meeting with Congressman Allen West in his office that afternoon. That evening was the dinner gala, at which Col. West was the keynote speaker.
Friday morning saw two excellent presentations by Cliff Kincaid and Andy Bostom. I had read many of Mr. Kincaid’s writings in the past, but never had the opportunity to meet him until yesterday. Andy is already a friend, of course, and well-known to most Gates of Vienna readers.
My original plan was to write up the conference in a single post, but there was too much material; the result would be long and unwieldy. So I’ll break it up into several bite-size pieces, each covering a portion of the events.
As the late Root Boy Slim once sang: “I used to be from D.C., but they don’t want no more of me.”
I lived in the Washington area when I was young, residing at various times in the suburbs on both sides of the Potomac while commuting to work in D.C. itself. I didn’t like the place at the time, and it never grew on me. After five years of commuter hell I made a sensible career decision to relocate to rural Virginia, which is where I was born, and take up a vocation of poverty and privation as a landscape artist.
Every time I return to the area, I remember all too well why I left. The city’s suburbs have continued to expand, and now extend about thirty miles farther to the south and west than they did when I was a kid. The roads are more clogged and congested, much more of the landscape has been paved over, and the inner suburbs are now so culturally enriched that they seem more like Addis Ababa or Nogales than an American city.
So, all in all, I’m glad I got out. Being a lot wealthier wouldn’t have made living there worth it.
The greatest difference is in downtown Washington itself. Physically speaking, it hasn’t changed all that much in thirty-five years. There are more concrete-and-glass monstrosities housing the lobbying warrens on J, K, and L Streets, and the one-way system is even more baffling than it used to be. But from a superficial viewpoint, the city doesn’t look all that different.
Yet there is something creepy about the place. Back during the run-up to Desert Storm — which is now more than twenty years ago — I took the future Baron on a tour of the monuments and museums along the Mall. Everyone was terrified of a terrorist attack during the preparations for the war in Iraq, and it was the middle of winter, so most of the tourists had vanished from downtown Washington. I figured that it would be an ideal time to drive up there and take in the (mostly free) sights in Our Nation’s Capital.
I was right — we parked at a meter right next to the Washington Monument, and there was hardly anybody there except a few cops. There was almost no line waiting to ride to the top of the monument, where we braved the cold wind to look out over the city. Next we went to the Lincoln Memorial, had a quick look at the Capitol, visited the dinosaurs at the Smithsonian, saw the Air and Space Museum, and checked out the Botanical Gardens.
Even though we were in the midst of a terrorist scare, there were no metal detectors, no security barriers, no bag searches — it was still like the old days.
When I was a kid, you could just walk up the stairs into the Capitol. Any visitor could. But no more — those days are gone forever. The East Front has been ruined with the new underground visitors’ center through which everyone is funneled, and it’s just like the airport down there: long lines snaking out into the weather, X-rays, take your jacket off, bag searches, no liquids allowed — you all know the drill.
Walk down the nearby streets and notice how many of them are closed off. There are Jersey barriers and raised steel plates that only lower if you have the right card or the guard approves your car. A guy with a mirror on a pole looks at the underside of each vehicle when it enters the parking garage. As far as I could tell, every building housing federal functionaries maintains this level of security.
And then there are the police. They are everywhere. Capitol Police, Park Police, Metro Police, D.C. city police, and armed federal officers of various sorts whose agency designations weren’t familiar to me.
This is supposedly a free country, but our national capital looks like a police state.
All this security is designed to protect federal employees and elected officials, and preserve the infrastructure they require inside their hives. Businesses aren’t kept safe by these measures. Ordinary citizens aren’t being guarded by all those armed police. Heck, ordinary citizens are the ones whose scrota are being palpated at the checkpoints.
Yesterday morning I drove down Wisconsin Avenue, which is outside most of the Federal behemoth, so that things look more normal there — businesses, hotels, residences, open sidewalks. And then I passed a building behind a big iron fence with spikes at the top that turned outwards. There was a raised steel plate with a card reader at the entrance. Must be a federal building, I thought. And, sure enough, when I rounded the corner, there was the sign: “National Commission for Strategic Revenue Enhancement” or some such.
It seems that the Department of Homeland Security has turned every single federal structure into a steel-ringed fortress bristling with the latest high-tech security. If you were wondering where all your tax dollars are being spent, this is one of the worthy causes you are so generously funding.
The place gives me the willies. It doesn’t feel like our government works for us anymore. And we don’t even work for it — we’re all just potential terrorists and petty nuisances who have to empty our wallets for Uncle Sam, but otherwise must stay out of the way.
I was relieved to get out of there. When I passed the last strip malls and townhouses and rolled out into the Virginia countryside, I felt a great weight lift from my shoulders.