The first time I visited Washington, DC, was in 1993. It was an unexpected visit: I was in Maryland on business, and a schedule change left me with a free day. I was in a town at the end of the Metro train line, so I bought a pass and rode right into the National Mall.
I had no idea what to expect. I was surprised and delighted to find Capitol at one end, the Washington Monument in the middle, and the Lincoln Memorial at the other end, all separated by grass and pools.
Before I left Maryland I stepped into a drug store and bought a disposable camera. I’m so happy I did, because with it I recorded scenes that aren’t there anymore. Like this one.
Of course these steps are still there. What’s not there is the ability to walk up them. They are barricaded and a guard is posted. It’s been that way since sometime after that terrible day in September of 2001. But in 1993 I walked right up them. When I reached the top, I stood on the terrace and made this photograph.
You can’t make that photograph anymore because you can’t reach that terrace.
Here’s something else you can’t do anymore: on impulse, waltz right into the United States Capitol. I did just that on this August, 1993 day. I followed the yellow rope line up the steps (humming to myself, “I’m just a bill, yes I’m only a bill…“) and walked in the door. Much of the Capitol was open to anyone. Only the House and Senate chambers were closed to the public.
It was thrilling to simply walk into and experience this hall of American government. But it was as I had always been taught: this government and, by extension, its buildings belonged to the people. We were therefore free to experience public spaces within them whenever we wanted.
You can’t enter the Capitol this way anymore. For that matter, you can’t enter the Capitol at all without having prearranged it (which you do online here). And you don’t walk up those steps. Instead, you enter through a bunker-like underground visitor’s center (completed in 2008) that’s about 150 feet behind where I stood to make the photo above. On the way in you have to empty your pockets into trays and walk through a metal detector.
We all know that drill. We’ve experienced it for many, many years now. We all probably expect it on some level. You don’t want someone walking in armed and shooting Senators.
In 1993 that idea was so far-fetched as to be ridiculous. Today we can all fully imagine it happening. It’s a national tragedy.
But screening us all creates a second, and in my opinion greater, tragedy. Formerly our government belonged to us. Now our government can’t trust us. Formerly each of us was presumed harmless. Now as any of us enters a government building there is that one moment where the guard at the metal detector just can’t be sure.
It changes how we view our government. We used to believe we were all in it together, that our government, while not perfect, was of us and for us. Now the government feels separate from us, and we don’t feel welcome in it.