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More Safeguards Won't Make the President Safer

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Apparently some lunatic with a knife and an arms cache jumped the White House fence and managed to get all the way to the front door before they caught him. And apparently some other lunatic -- this one in the Secret Service -- has proposed establishing checkpoints in the public areas around the White House in order to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.

For those of you who are not familiar with the geography of Washington, it’s probably worth mentioning that the White House is smack in the middle of downtown. This is partly by design -- the city’s architect, Pierre L’Enfant, envisioned the city around the White House and the Capitol Building -- and partly because over the years, federal agencies and lobbyists have found it convenient to be located right next to the centers of power.

The street in front of the White House was already closed off to vehicles during earlier rounds of security theater, making it somewhat arduous to navigate around the area. Now, thanks to some sort of mistake by the Secret Service, Washington’s pedestrians and bicyclists are supposed to take their lumps, too. When it comes to the safety of POTUS, the Secret Service considers no price too great for other people to pay.

For example: President Barack Obama and his family like to spend the evening before Thanksgiving handing out food to the needy. How do I know this, you may ask, even though I do not watch the evening newscasts where this sort of event is prominently featured? Because I now live right next to the intersection of three major routes out of town: New York Avenue/Route 50, which runs east to Maryland and the Beltway and west to interstates 395 and 295; Florida Avenue, which also runs out to Maryland; and North Capitol Street, which transports Washingtonians to Union Station and office workers back to their homes in Maryland. And on the evening before Thanksgiving, when a presidential motorcade shuts down one of those major thoroughfares for half an hour or so and brings the other two to a dead halt, I get to spend several happy hours listening to the screech of horns and the Twitter wailings of taxi passengers who just missed their sold-out trains.

I can understand why the Secret Service might not want to risk the president getting caught in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam, which would be a good place for terrorists to attack (though perhaps not a good place for terrorists to escape from afterward). But no one seems to have thought of the perfectly expedient and safe method of keeping him in the White House, surrounded by armed agents (who, let us remember, did catch the armed lunatic well before the presidential person was ever in danger): If it is so urgent that the president be seen distributing food as a Good Example to the Nation, why not do it at the White House, where I am given to understand that there is some pantry space and even cooking equipment? Instead, traffic gets snarled for probably hundreds of thousands of anxious people who are just trying to get home to their loved ones so that the president can have what is, essentially, a photo op.

Of course, like every other American, I think it is important to keep the president safe. But I don’t think that it is literally the only important thing, which seems to be the attitude of the Secret Service. We fetishize presidential security as if POTUS were some sort of sacred object rather than a job description. And lest you think that I am pleading especially for Washingtonians -- who did, after all, decide to move to Washington, and whose jobs are probably somehow related to the presence of the federal government -- let me point out that we now export these traffic snarls and security lockdowns all over the country whenever the president goes to raise money or give a speech. Which seems to be most of the time, in the era of the permanent campaign.

What will they do the next time someone manages to penetrate the outer ring of the presidential cordon -- strip-search everyone within a one-mile radius? The Secret Service cannot simply keep extending the perimeter and subjecting everyone else to more searches and waits every time it has a security failure ... not least because a larger perimeter is harder, not easier, to secure. It certainly can’t do so while keeping him in the middle of a big city.

If security really is the only imperative, then it should build a bunker in the proverbial “undisclosed location” out in the deep woods somewhere, drop the first family into it for eight years, and have him make all contact with the outside world via videoconference. But if the president wants to live in the heart of downtown, and even go out into the world occasionally, then his security agents will have to accept that the people who voted for him are out there, too. And that their lives are also important.

  1. For all I know, President George W. Bush also liked to shut down half the routes out of the city on the evening before Thanksgiving; I just didn’t live here then, so I didn’t get to enjoy the happy side effects.

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To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net