I return from a brief trip to Washington, D.C. with decidedly mixed emotions. The new monument to Martin Luther King Jr. is a beauty and it was a thrill to see it. My wife and I took my son there to visit friends and family, as well as show him around our nation's capital. Overall, we had a nice stay.
Included on our to-do list was a tour of the Capitol building, courtesy of arrangements made by our congresswoman's office. How can I say this? The tour was lame. And as unsettling as it was unsatisfying.
You used to be able to just walk in the Capitol from multiple points of entry. Now everyone is steered through a new visitor center, which has the look and feel of a fortified bunker. The doors must be blastproof because they are so heavy you have to plant your feet and pull with both hands to open them. No kind of vehicle can get close to the place thanks to the pop-up barricades that block every passageway. Armed guards dot the grounds outside, and a substantially larger security force form an imposing gauntlet inside the visitor center.
Once we got through the scanners and then the additional screening done by uniformed officers, we were herded to an information desk to get our tickets for the guided tour. After waiting in line under the watchful eye of still more Capitol personnel, we were ushered into a small theater for a short movie. It was a standard-issue tour film, but one thing I remember. The narrator said Congress is the place "where common ground is found" in our nation. I tried muffling my laughter, with limited success.
Then we filed out into a lobby where we were met by a tour guide, who introduced herself before emphasizing that we should not stray from the group. She took us to the rotunda and told a few stories about the artwork on the ceiling and the statues on the floor before leading us to Statuary Hall which was the original House chamber in the Capitol's early days. It later housed a farmer's market, which is unimaginable today. Now it's just an empty room lined with more statues.
Our guide pointed to the doors to the current House chamber. She noted that's where the president – after the House sergeant at arms bellows "Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States" – enters on his way to deliver his annual State of the Union address. We weren't allowed to take the walk the president makes, though. Or even approach the doors to peek through the crack.
Moments after it began, our tour was over. No visit to the Senate or House chambers. I'd seen them in years past, but my son's experience would be quite different. Not even a look at the ornately decorated Old Senate Chamber, which used to be a staple of the Capitol tours of yesteryear.
We were led back through the rotunda and returned to the visitor center. I could not get Ben Franklin's famous quote out of my mind. You know, the one about those who sacrifice essential liberty for temporary safety deserving neither liberty nor safety.
From the airport to many of its most recognizable sites, Washington is armed to the teeth as it greets visitors. The greeting conveys the impression of a police state. The U.S. Capitol, of all places, is a symbol of our nation. Security there proved to be tighter than at the Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving, where the nation's currency is printed for crying out loud. That's some symbolism.
I left the visitor center, moved nearly to tears. Not out of inspiration or gratitude. Out of sadness for what we've allowed our Capitol to become. A fortress.
How did we become so hated around the world that it's come to this? Or how did we get so scared of the world around us that we started acting like this?
I hope my son lives to see the day when our nation's capital and our Capitol building are once again symbols befitting a free society. I'm not sure I will.