When I arrived in Washington as a college freshman in 1995, the Secret Service had just closed the block of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. It was terrible for traffic and made a mockery of the folksy notion that even the president had a viable street address. It imparted instead the dismal impression that some hotheaded colonel in Bethesda was about to lead his restive tank battalion into town to seize power. But soon it became a normal feature of the city’s landscape, and 25 years later no one even mentions it.
The nation’s capital has long borne a stale air of self-importance. As a Washington expatriate of many years, I’ve always seen the slide toward authoritarian security affectations as an absurd reflection of Washingtonian self-regard. “Of course we’re important,” each new restrictive measure seemed to reassure a city officialdom dependent on election results and opaque favoritism. “If we need to protect ourselves in these ways, we must be important.”
Other measures came or threatened to come. After 9/11, federal buildings were closed for weeks and have been subject to near-TSA levels of security ever since. The expensively renovated National Airport was nearly closed down, but its proximity to the city proved far too convenient for our esteemed legislators to do without. Even as the city’s post-Marion Barry crime rate began plummeting and gentrification swept over previously no-go neighborhoods, much of the political class decamped to anonymous suburbs to escape whatever residual evildoing might keep them from their Olympian endeavors. Trumpian disdain for “the swamp” and bouts of cancel-culture harassment drove nattering notables from the capital’s public spaces and into the recesses of its private clubs and assorted back rooms. Far from minding these accumulating threats to one’s liberty, politicians found an alluring luster in the inaccessibility they imposed.
The political reaction to the January 6 Capitol riot has been swift, starting with a hasty second impeachment of Trump but quickly extending as well to a security presence of unprecedented might. Washington is now a “warzone,” says an elderly neighbor who survived the Holocaust and has lived in the city for more than four decades. “It’s terrible,” she told me by phone after surveying the elaborate measures defending the city’s center. “I never thought this would happen in the United States of America.” A broad swath of the city, including Capitol Hill, the Mall, the Tidal Basin, the White House, the State Department, Union Station, the blocks around them, the main bridges crossing the Potomac, and the entire riverfront to Georgetown, is blocked to all but authorized traffic. To the north and south of this Orwellian forbidden zone, designated “Red,” a smaller “Green Zone”—no sense of self-awareness relating to the one in Baghdad—allows limited traffic for local residents who are now asked for their papers in a grim evocation of entering East Berlin. All Metro stations within them are closed. Another Washington friend posted video of the city’s broad but empty avenues, which he described as “eerie.”
All of it is defended by 25,000 National Guardsmen sent from 13 states, supported by an additional 2,000 regular military servicemen and federal and D.C. law enforcement. They are enthusiastically supported by Washington’s mayor Muriel Bowser, who less than eight months ago angrily demanded that the National Guard withdraw from her city amid violent demonstrations of a different sort; she then named a street after those demonstrators.
This force—at least four times the deployment for Trump’s heavily and even violently protested inauguration in 2017—far exceeds the number of all serving U.S. personnel in the Middle East. It has no precedent on American soil at any time since the Civil War. And even this wasn’t thought sufficient to deter Trumpian mischief. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly wanted the Guard armed with high-caliber machine guns and requested that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff deprive Trump of constitutional military prerogatives prior to his leaving office. At least one Democratic congressman wondered in a televised interview whether the guardsmen could be trusted since so many of them are white males, statistically likely to have voted for Trump, and therefore suspect in his eyes.
The revenant establishment is leaving nothing to chance in Biden’s Washington. But will the nation’s capital ever be the same?
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images