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Jewish World Review Feb. 12, 2001 / 19 Shevat 5761

Philip Terzian

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Consumer Reports

Pickett's second charge -- WHEN IT was reported, the other morning, that a man with a gun was loose on the White House grounds, I rummaged around for my press pass, attached it to a chain hanging from my neck, and rushed over to see what was happening.

As everyone now knows, not too much. Just as I arrived at the north entrance to the White House an ambulance was speeding north on Fifteenth Street. I guessed that it contained the man with a gun -- dead or alive? -- and I was right: The ambulance turned west on Pennsylvania Avenue toward George Washington Hospital. Cops of all shapes and police jurisdictions were milling about, and yellow tape was stretching across various intersections.

The block between the Treasury building, which is next door to the White House, and my office, which is two blocks east of the Treasury, was cordoned off by police cars -- who were still there blocking traffic when I left the office for the evening.

This was exactly the sort of incident that nourishes our new, 24-hour cable news cycle, and the networks didn't fail us. All day the "Breaking News" logo was stripped across television screens, long after every available detail had been learned. We are now expert in the life and times of poor, demented Robert Pickett, 47, of Evansville, Indiana, who climbed the fence on the south lawn of the White House, fired some shots, put a pistol in his mouth, and aimed his weapon at the Secret Service, who then shot him in the leg.

It was also the sort of incident that reminds us how vulnerable presidents can be: You never know where and when tragedy lurks.

As it turns out, President Bush was exercising in the White House gym when the shooting broke out, and Mrs. Bush was in Texas. The President was never i danger. Even if Mr. Pickett has succeeded in scaling the fence, and run firing toward the White House -- several hundred yards away -- he would have been gunned down by a) snipers on the White House roof, b) uniformed agents patrolling the sidewalks or c) Secret Service men who wander unobserved among the trees. Moreover, there are all sorts of sensors and booby traps buried in the lawn to alert the several hundred heavily armed ladies and gentlemen who guard the White House.

Still, people with a suicidal impulse aren't always deterred. In September 1994 a man stole a light plane, buzzed around the Washington Monument, and crashed on the White House lawn, killing himself at two in the morning. A month later another man, standing on the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk, fired a volley of shots from a semi-automatic rifle toward the White House before being tackled by passersby. Two months after that a homeless man brandishing a knife on the same sidewalk was shot and killed by the U.S. Park Police. And in May 1995 an intruder climbed over the fence and ran toward the White House brandishing an unloaded pistol before Secret Service agents shot him in the arm.

That was a month after Timothy McVeigh exploded his lethal bomb at the federal building in Oklahoma City, and the Secret Service, mindful of President Bill Clinton's sense of insecurity, seized the moment. Traffic was abruptly sealed off from Pennsylvania Avenue, the nation's main street, and several surrounding boulevards, leaving the White House behind an ever-expanding perimeter of security, and downtown Washington in ever-growing gridlock.

Of course, this latest incident took place just as President Bush was pondering how to honor his campaign pledge to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue "as a symbolic expression of our confidence in the restoration of the rule of law." And it is the received wisdom, at the moment, that Robert Pickett's lunatic act might have persuaded Mr. Bush that keeping Pennsylvania Avenue closed is a good idea. That, certainy, was the consensus of cable TV "security experts" and retired Secret Service agents.

But there is another side to the story. Not a single one of these incidents, including Pickett's charge, would have been prevented by blocking traffic from Pennsylvania Avenue and surrounding streets. And the truth is that, if the Secret Service had its way, the President would serve out his term in a bunker, protected from any public contact whatsoever. The White House is already cordoned off from the citizens of our democracy by huge gates, high iron fences, concrete barriers and growing arsenals of weaponry and cannon fodder.

This is neither appropriate nor desirable in a free society. Public life carries some risks, which every candidate for the presidency weighs in the balance. The truth is that no president can be guaranteed absolute safety, and the instinct to protect our leaders from harm must be measured against the dangers of police state procedures. Given America's size, and the nature of our open, unfettered society, it is a wonder that so few incidents actually occur.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal