Road Trips, Stories Told

I hate what domestic terrorism has done to our country

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.

US Capitol, 1993

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.

US Capitol, 1993

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.

US Capitol, 1993

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.

US Capitol, 1993

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.


53 thoughts on “I hate what domestic terrorism has done to our country

  1. I have experienced that same shift on a local level. In the mid 1980s when I was a young lawyer, I could waltz right into any courthouse or government building, either State or Federal. Procrastinating lawyers could meet a filing deadline with a “rotunda filing” of an appeal brief by walking into the State Capitol building and getting a security guard to time stamp it. If you made it before midnight you were ok.
    This all started to change in the mid 90s so now you can’t enter a single county courthouse anywhere in the State without proving that you are without weapons. It makes me both angry and sad.

    • I remember well the first time I walked into a courthouse and got the whole shakedown. I felt sadder to be an American than at any other time in my life.

    • Dan Cluley says:

      That’s interesting. I don’t know about the courtroom itself, but there is no entrance security at my local county courthouse building.

      If there is a security check at the Michigan state capitol it has been put in place in the last year or so.

      The Federal courthouse shares a building with a post office, and there is a metal detector to enter the court part of the building.

  2. It is indeed a sad state of affairs. A domestic flight in July to which I committed a year ago will be the last time I get on an airplane. I am fortunate that Amtrak provides good rail service to all of my regular destinations and, so far anyway, treats me as a valued customer rather than a suspect.

  3. Poignant and thoughtful commentary. Seems to me that there exists the presumption that we, the people, are all guilty– of something. Sad commentary on both the society and its government.

    • That’s how it feels, anyway: that until I’m cleared, I have to be treated as suspect. That’s not the America of my youth, where you were presumed honorable until you did something to show otherwise.

  4. We didn’t do this to ourselves. It was done to us by others who, for religious or political reasons, hate our free way of life.

    Muslims who take the Quran seriously believe that all the world must be brought under Sharia law. Not much freedom there.

    The 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx was just celebrated by some who choose to ignore the fact that in the 20th century alone more than 100 million people died as the direct result of attempts to impose the principles of Marxism in its various forms upon the human race. No freedom there either.

    In order for either of these philosophies to succeed, our free way of life must be stamped out.

  5. Jim, sorry to post this here, but I was out most of the day yesterday selling my Backroads and Byways of Georgia and Rock City Barns books at a bookfair.

    This is a follow-up to your Saturday post about film blogs.I have never seen any mention, either in your list, or in those put out by others, of The Online Darkroom, which I consider to the very best film blog I know of. Check it out at

  6. There was a time when schools did not need armed security officers or police on campus and now mpesome want our teachers, who in many ways are mentors, to carry guns to protect us.

  7. As a private pilot, I can remember when, if the jump seat was open in the cockpit of a commercial airliner, they’d let you sit up front if you showed them your license.

  8. Roger Meade says:

    Actually the idea of an armed attack on the House or Senate was not that ridiculous in 1993, but the actuality was long forgotten. A group of armed Porto Rican nationalists attacked and wounded several House members in 1954 in the House chamber. But it was an isolated incident, not part of a well planned campaign of terror.

    But I do get your point, and fully agree. As a railfan I used to walk onto RR property all across the country and was mostly tolerated if not welcomed while I took photos of locomotives, buildings and equipment. No more. Pull out a camera and you will be escorted away if not arrested by over zealous police. There were a few railroads in years past that did not tolerate fans, but they were pretty much known in the hobby, and you acted accordingly.

  9. SilverFox says:

    Jim, it is indeed sad time and not reserved for just this country. It is part of a worldwide paranoia about things that have existed since forever but in these days of information overload now has us (as a collective whole) paralyzed like deer in the headlights. I see it at the local level too with large iron fences and gates being put up around what were once open and beautiful houses and gardens. people locking themselves in in fear of the outside world.
    I long for the open trust there once was and you can’t blame terrorism alone, I grew up in the UK at a time when the threat of terrorism was high but we got on with it and didn’t lock every door as a result and it was only as time went on that the at risk locations started to put up the barricades.
    You have to wonder whether they’ve already won (whoever ‘they’ are, by us changing our way of living and losing the trust; locking everyone out by reacting in the ways we have we have lost.

    • Out here in the vast Midwest everyday life continues much as it did, I think, as long as you don’t enter a government building. Then there are the metal detectors and the bag x-rays. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop being disappointed to see it.

  10. Some very tragic but true points you’ve made here :( Lovely photos, glad to glimpse these views through your camera since we can’t in person any longer!

  11. Heide says:

    As the comments above will attest, you’ve written a profound and thought-provoking piece. As a society we’ve traded so many of our liberties — including the liberty to visit “our” national monuments — for the illusion of safety. But you’re so right that we can’t go back, Jim. I just hope we’ll have the wisdom and maturity as a nation to find a path forward that still reflects the ideals of freedom, equality, and inalienable human rights on which our democracy was founded.

  12. I used to take my kids on that terrace years ago, when we lived in DC. They would dance up there, and play the hand clap games, that little girls play. I agree that it’s sad that any of us has to experience life, looking through cages and fences, but the upside is, it’s no longer only one segment of the American population getting wanded everywhere we go. Sharing is great, isn’t it? Welcome to the party.

  13. DougD says:

    It’s not just your country, on my last trip to Ottawa I was simultaneously impressed and disappointed by the raising/lowering bollard system to control access by vehicles on capitol hill. You can still walk around outside but must go through security to tour inside.

    I don’t share your feeling of separation from my government though. This is the new normal and we will do what is required to deal with it. I’m more sad that there’s better things to spend money on then preventative security.

  14. Pingback: I hate what domestic terrorism has done to our country — Down the Road – datawap

  15. Times sure have changed “post 911”. Now that the government has gotten so big 21 million employees last confirmed in the gallop polls of 2013 and now eight years later it’s gotten to God only knows how many people. We all have to keep our heads up and make the best of these times. We can’t afford to think negative anymore or wallow in self pity, that’s just my two cents> I sure do apprechiate the perspective though it allowed me to see once again just what we’ve become as a nation. The government and it’s people totally disconnected.

  16. I find it sad that as a teacher I find it safer to teach abroad then in my own country, but it’s the truth. Kuwait is a much safer country in terms of terrorist attacks then the US. There is still lots of security here, but I can focus on teaching rather than active shooter drills.

  17. I’m actually surprised that the security was not higher, even in the nineties, but I’m glad it wasn’t and glad you bought that disposable camera, too. It is so sad that these measures have had to be taken. I can’t imagine a time when they might be able to roll back these precautions, which is sadder still.

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