Maybe it was prescient of me to blog about safety last week. Since posting that entry, we have had an active shooter drill at work, and last week a guy concealing a knife with a serrated blade was able to successfully get into the White House. I am not sure if he knew President Obama and his family weren’t there, but he was able to actually get inside.
Recently, I was reading Noah Brooks’ Washington in Lincoln’s Time, and it was appalling that at the time of the Civil War and earlier, no one thought twice about people just strolling in and out of the White House. Lincoln had complained about this throughout his Presidency, and the security was notoriously lax, considering that Washington bordered one hostile state (Virginia) and another (Maryland) that had come very close to seceding. People came to the White House daily seeking government jobs, asking the President for passes to Richmond, or petitioning for pardons. Lincoln was more irritated about how these people interfered with his work and what little down time he had with his family, but he did not worry about his personal safety–even though he kept a file in his desk which contained 80 letters threatening his life. “If I were to guard against all danger, I should have to shut myself up in an iron box,” he told friends who tried to persuade him to take more precautions.
This has all changed, of course. The closest anyone has come to a President at his residence was in November 1950, when two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to shoot their way into Blair House, where President Harry S Truman and his family lived during the extensive White House renovations.
I remember the security in the White House in the summer of 1973, when my dad and I toured Washington. There were no metal detectors or body scans, and I don’t even think we were searched. (I do remember that I was carrying a sports bag which contained my camera and tape recorder.) I do remember that Secret Service agents–who dressed like Mormon missionaries–were very polite and friendly to the tourists who crossed their paths.
My friend John and I visited in 1982, the only other time I had been inside the White House. He and I had hitchhiked from Marietta when he came to visit me from St. Louis. The previous year, then-President Reagan was wounded in an assassination attempt, and the Secret Service had escalated security a bit. John and I did not carry knapsacks (we had left them at the home on D St. NE where we were staying), but I had a portable tape recorder in my back pocket, and I remember an agent giving it a second or third glance as I walked by.
Those were also the days when through traffic went by on Pennsylvania Ave. Bill Clinton put a stop to that, and made the street pedestrians-only, after Oklahoma City in 1995.
The active shooter drill at work was one that was much closer to me than any loon trying to get into the White House. I am a floor warden on the 10th floor of the building where I work. (Essentially, I’m a glorified “safety captain,” a title I proudly held in third grade.) We had our annual training session a week prior to the active shooter drill, although we did not see the video we had seen in previous meetings, which is below:
So, last week, I was out of my seat making my way to the water cooler. I had just begun to fill my large water cup when the director of security walked down the aisle outside the pods and blew a loud klaxon horn. (Anyone who has ever been to a Blue Jackets game knows what I’m describing. I have so far resisted the temptation to put one on my trike.)
During that drill, I was not wearing my floor warden hat. If there had actually been a maniac roaming our floor with a gun, he would not have cared who was in his line of fire. (I am using the male gender here because, as far as I know, there has never been a woman who has shot up a workplace.) I could be the floor warden or Jesus Christ himself, and I would only be a target to him.
I put down my water cup and ran for the nearest office, which turned out to be the office of my supervisor. Another co-worker ran in with me, and we closed and locked the door and pushed a chair against the door. I did not lead very well by example; I was sitting directly in front of the door, and it is not thick enough to withstand gunfire. The three of us sat there, much more at ease (I am sure) than if it had been the real thing. Later on, we joked about calling up Donatos to have them deliver subs and a pizza to the office while we waited for the all clear.
By my watch, it took about 10 seconds to make the sprint from the water cooler to the office. I even followed the “don’t carry anything with you” rule, and left my water cup (a souvenir of my recent overnight stay at Riverside Hospital) at the cooler. (On a side note: I know I have railed about the stupidity of buying bottled water elsewhere in this blog. However, the water in the fountains and sinks on the 10th floor tastes so vile that I gratefully cough up $2 every pay period for water that tastes cleaner.)
We all took a collective breath after hearing the all-clear. We knew this had been a drill, and not the real thing, but it had all the trappings of reality. During the second grade, I was at North Hills School in Marietta when the fire alarm sounded. The teacher looked absolutely surprised, like the sound had come 100% out of the blue, and began herding all of us to the front lawn in front of the school. I do not read people’s facial expressions and body language very well, but it still got through to me that the teachers had been caught off guard. This began the rumor that there may have been a real fire. (There wasn’t–a kid who was not the sharpest knife in the drawer had decided to play with the fire alarm on his way back from the boys’ room.)
There was a post-drill meeting in one of the conference rooms, and we received high praise for how quickly everyone got under cover and out of sight had there been a real shooter in the building. (It is not an idle threat, either. In November 1996, a claimant took three hostages in the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation office three floors above where I work. It ended without any bloodshed, but no one laughs off the idea of a gunman loose in the building.)
Our chief of security showed us a video which said that the greatest threat to government workers is not from international terrorists, but from the home-grown variety, the “sovereign citizens” (many of them on the government teat for V.A. benefits, Medicare, and Social Security) who do not recognize any authority beyond that of the county sheriff (the posse comitatus zealots), and have often taken hostile measures against the “gub’mint”.
Since my job is part of state government, it is not too far-fetched to think that another scenario like the one in 1996 could happen again. Not long after Oklahoma City, I was working as an appointment clerk for the IRS’ Columbus office at the John W. Bricker Federal Building, which is across High St. from where I now work. I’m prone to a macabre sense of humor, and when a friend called and asked me how to find my building, I told him to look for the building with the abandoned Ryder truck sitting out front.
This is the video about the danger from sovereign citizens:
As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus used to say on Hill Street Blues: “Hey, let’s be careful out there!”