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‘Fortress America’ Changes a Uniquely American Moment

Inaugurations are truly magnificent moments.  While there are still many parts of the world where the executive authority of a nation is transferred from person to person via a military coup, a gunshot, a bayonet, or other physically coercive means, we as a nation assemble every four years, ask the recently elected individual to raise their right hand and utter a 35-word oath, and it’s over and done. This seemingly simple act is truly American, along with the pageantry, pomp, and ritual that go with becoming the president of the United States.

Much of Washington is already decorated with red, white and blue bunting, folding chairs and signs directing ticket holders on where they should go to see the ceremony and parade, but there are other decorations that can be seen as well. They include recently installed jersey walls, chain link fencing, movable steel walls, portable cell phone/communications towers and warnings of pending street closures and other pedestrian restrictions. And everywhere there are police, Secret Service, military personnel, and thousands of others mobilizing to make it all come off without a hitch.

Because the inauguration is a National Special Security Event (NSSE), the U.S. Secret Service has the lead responsibility from start to finish. From political party conventions, international summits, Super Bowls, Olympic Games on U.S. soil, and State of the Union speeches to presidential inaugurations, the people with the stern looks and ear pieces hustling along with the president, his limo, and Air Force One have a huge task in ensuring the safety and security of our government as well as its transition of power.

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The presidential reviewing stand under construction. Photo by Rich Cooper

Because of President Obama’s re-election, while no power is changing hands this Jan. 20 (the real Inauguration Day) or Jan. 21 in the public ceremonies, what you will see will be utterly flawless execution of a majestically choreographed program.

From blaring trumpets, ceremonial cannon fire, and prepositioned locations for the notable participants and performers, to precision military units marching in perfect form down Pennsylvania Avenue, it will be awesome, but if you look closer you will also see the personification of “Fortress America.” How much the public will see of that will probably depend on whose media coverage you watch, but there is little doubt if you live or work in downtown D.C., what you see around you is truly impressive and also a bit disconcerting.

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White House preparations for inauguration day 2013. Photo by Rich Cooper

There are absolutely legitimate reasons the Secret Service and its military and law enforcement partners are being forward-leaning with their aggressive security posture. Our nation, much like other parts of the world, has its moments of violence when assassins, be they a lone wolf or a highly trained group of killers, will try to strike. While we have not had a president or a presidential candidate assassinated in 50 years (JFK – 1963 in Dallas, Texas) or 45 years (RFK – 1968 in Los Angeles, Calif.), there are enough homegrown as well as international actors who would do so if given a chance.

That is a chance no one wants to take, but in the capital city of a nation, amid people that are supposedly the freest on the planet, you will feel anything but free walking around Washington, D.C. Instead it feels like an armed encampment where your movement is about to be restricted even further at any moment so that a motorcade can pass through or another set of jersey walls can be put in place for use on the big day.

Now the cold, gray, and dreary weather we’ve had the past week has not helped matters of late in terms of feeling good about Washington, D.C. Nor has the absolutely venomous back and forth that congressional members, the White House, and everyone else has had of late.

Washington is by far not the capital of good times or good cheer, and I can’t help but feel all of the intense security mechanisms, procedures, and infrastructure are only exacerbating those feelings.

Having worked closely with the Secret Service on several NSSEs, as well as the first Inauguration after 9/11, I certainly understand and respect the needs for strong perimeter security for an event of this magnitude, but “Fortress America” is not the image I think I want for the Inauguration of any president of a land of the free and the home of the brave.

That feeling has grown each day as I’ve watched the presidential reviewing stand go up outside the front of the White House or see new stacks of portable steel fencing and jersey walls put on sidewalks to be deployed and shut the city down to only official inauguration traffic.

I know these feelings have been felt by some of my friends and co-workers of late that work with me in DC.  Friends and family in other cities that have hosted other NSSEs (e.g., New York, Pittsburgh, Denver, etc.) have shared that they have had similar feelings as well when everything around them took on a new look and feel to accommodate security needs to safeguard the principal participants as well as the “public.” The facts are that when the “big event” comes to town, security forces take over in full force, along with all of the bells, whistles and infrastructure included.

Ironically, when the historic photo is captured of the magic moment at the big event, be it this inauguration, future ones, or even recent or future NSSEs, lost in the shot will be the feel of the truly open society that we once comfortably were. You really can’t feel that amidst newly placed steel barricades and jersey walls as you stand in line and empty your pockets into a bin for the umpteenth time to witness history firsthand. That doesn’t exist much anymore, and I don’t know if we’ll ever feel it again, for what are very real and legitimate concerns.


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...