Alienation and Its Discontents

Despite all the dire predictions, it looks as if Washington has survived the first couple of days of The Closing of Pennsylvania Avenue, proving once again that commuters are among the most adaptable of creatures, capable of changing their MO at a rate that would make a mutating virus look stodgy.

The decision to close sections of Pennsylvania Avenue and South Executive Avenue may end up being a good one that will ultimately result in creating a wonderful esplanade around the White House. But the reason had nothing to do with improving the people's enjoyment of the White House; instead it was this: The White House needed to be made secure from the people.

President Harry S. Truman used to walk around town with a couple of Secret Service agents. Today, thanks to a series of losers who have taken out their rage on presidents, our chief executive travels around in a limo equipped like an armored tank. The bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City has turned the spotlight of suspicion on right-wing militias that may be breeding grounds for more violent acts against the federal government.

The fact is, though, we can't protect every federal building from kooks who decide to pack rental trucks with ammonium nitrate and diesel oil, which is easily available. So it makes some sense to try to figure out what is causing this disaffection and alienation, this profound mistrust of government.

Washington Post reporter Phil McCombs's Monday profile of Pennsylvania militia founder David S. Laverty provided valuable insights. Like many other militia types interviewed by the media recently, he's deeply into conspiracy theories involving U.N. troops, international bankers, one-world governments and forces determined to take citizens' guns. Laverty demonstrated little understanding of how government works. but much hostility toward it. He sees little difference between politicians who hold wildly divergent views. He's even mad at Rush Limbaugh, because in his view Limbaugh's not buying the conspiracy theories that the Christian patriot movement lives by.

Laverty is full of contradictions: He and his wife describe themselves as Bible-following Christians, but they don't attend church. They've both been divorced. She is home-schooling their children. They sold their house last year and invested in guns, gold and freeze-dried food, essential for survival when the invasion comes. He's moved his wife and children somewhere into the woods, which is not the kind of thing likely to endear him to child-protection authorities. If he makes $20,000 a year as a roofer and doing other odd jobs on houses, it's high. Unlike his father and grandfather, he does not have a steady job. He's described himself as uneducated. You get the picture of a hard-luck guy who didn't start out with much and is looking ior something to give some meaning and structure to his life, something that will give him a sense of accomplishment.

Which makes him pretty normal.

History tells us that one key to understanding militia movements is to understand the impact on real human beings of the economic dislocation of the last 15 years. In 1973, a man with a high school education made a median income (in 1989 dollars) of $30,252. Sixteen years later, in 1989, he made $21,650. A man with less than a high school degree saw his income go from $24,079 down to $14,439.

At a White House reception recognizing the 75th anniversary of the Women's Bureau on Friday -- shortly before he decided to close Pennsylvania Avenue -- President Clinton talked about the economic dislocation and the costs to American families. Men who are 45 have lost 14 percent of their earning power in the last 10 years, he said. He spoke of a fauit line that is pulling the middle class apart.

Revolutionary movements spring from cultures in which things are going wrong, not in which they are going right. A psychiatrist told McCombs he believes much of this has to do with people feeling that they are not in control of things. Declining earnings, a growing sense that jobs aren't secure, that you may not be able to support your family and educate your children, all of that contributes to anxiety levels that breed these kinds of movements.

Closing Pennsylvania Avenue is one response. Harder, but in the long run most effective, will be our ability to build a new econonlic foundation for the groups that have had such a staggering financial hit since 1973, so that those people once again can have a stake in a system that is generating income and security--not conspiracies and manhunts.

Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park