Twenty Four Hours Left

“A lot can happen in twenty four hours,” they say. “One day is an eternity in politics.”

Well, sure; fine. A lot can change in a day’s time; that’s undeniable. Just… not this day.

The packing is nearly done — just enough extra-long red ties left over for a fresh change if needed. Trump plans to board Air Force One for the last time this afternoon and end his presidency in Florida with what scant dignity he can muster.

He leaves behind a Washington D.C. that is little more than an armed camp. Tens of thousands of National Guardsmen have taken up stations in and around our national monuments, and a substantial percentage of the citizenry have fled. Major bridges are closed off; checkpoints have been set up, and those on duty take their jobs very seriously. The only way any major threat is coming in is by air, and the government knows this; there are anti-missile and anti-air batteries set up all around the city.

The horse got out on the 6th, a very little, but now that barn door is well and truly shut, ladies and gentlemen.

So, no, nothing is going to happen in the next twenty four hours — and yet, people are still terrified that something will. Major vetting is underway as the Pentagon and FBI cooperate to inspect the troops that have flown in from around the country, sifting through their social media accounts for potential warning signs. Because there is always that danger of a lone actor, a sufficiently committed (or unstable) person who would gladly die for the chance to shoot a president — or a president-elect. If, heaven forfend, something does happen, it won’t be because someone ignored something obvious.

As a partial consequence of this and of COVID, we’re likely to watch the least-attended presidential inauguration in modern history, a celebration of democracy in absentia.

Which begs the question: What price is too high to pay to safeguard freedom? I mean, yes, this is fine — but when you realize the roadblocks are up at most state capitals, what then? Is that too much? What about the hundreds of arrests (or detainments) of perfectly ordinary people who just took a wrong turn, or who forgot about the shotgun in the back window of the pickup because it’s never been a problem before now?

Should we ban protests at every inauguration, or just this one?

Logically, there must arrive a time when the freedoms sacrificed outweigh those safeguarded. Where this line is varies based on the person you ask. An example: Most Americans are content with the security checks before airline boarding, don’t mind leaving their nail clippers at home, and so on. Personally, I’m so offended at the intrusive nature of airport security that I’ve not flown for two decades; I understand the situation, but I still don’t want to be in the same room as anyone who refuses to trust me with a bottle of shampoo.

One in eight presidents have been shot. It’s a danger that comes with the office, and it’s not peculiar to Americans. When you’re elected — more broadly, whenever a person chooses to become a celebrity — this is part of what you sign up for. So, sure, it makes sense to work to limit the risk; the Secret Service does a great job to not nearly enough public applause.

But how much risk prevention is too much? Where do we draw the line?

This once, I’m fine with the Guard being deployed in DC. I’m O.K. with the checkpoints and the roadblocks. I’m even good with protests being canceled; there are times, and this is one of them.

But the fact that I’m good with it worries me. Think about it: Normally I’d be incensed; remember, I refuse to enter a commercial jet.

So… on second thought, and after a great deal of sober reflection, I’m compelled to say: We crossed that line a long time ago. The Pentagon tells us there’s no credible threat from any of the troops; the F.B.I. assures us there won’t be anything major happening; the fine people at Ft. Meade are doubtless reading this article as I type it (Morning, Major! Had your coffee yet?) and debating fiercely over whether I’m a threat — and I haven’t exited my front door in weeks.

Whether or not something happens tomorrow — and nothing will, but even if something does; even if some insane lone gunman pulls off some sort of evil miracle — we’ve gone too far. We’re no longer protecting freedom and democracy; we’re guarding institutions and buildings as though the marble monuments were somehow sacred, as though Uncle Joe Biden were somehow more than merely human just because of his job title. This is no longer the realm of politics but instead of religion, with president as high priest and the inauguration as a high holy ceremony.

Perspective, people! The White House is the people’s house. The Capital is a public building. Washington is the nation’s city.

Remember that.

P.S. To those of you who broke into my building two weeks ago and shat on the marble floors: I’m very disappointed in you. Don’t do it again. -Editor

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