The White House divide

So just like that, Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, the heavily traveled street once shared by presidents, foreign leaders, commuters and tourists driving past, has been "permanently" shut to all vehicular traffic.

The weekend closure, ordered without notice ahead of Monday mornings rush, made two points: That criminals and crazies are driving Americans deeper into their bunkers. And the power of the presidency -- sometimes surprisingly -- can reach everywhere, from global wars to traffic engineering at the presidential doorstep.

President Clinton's decision for the Pennsylvania Avenue shutdown - mildly criticized for abruptness -- had been obvious, even before its recommendation by a Treasury Department review of White House security.

The facts of life in America now make it clear that when fanatics of whatever delusions plan and execute a devastating bomb attack against a symbol of federal authority in Oklahoma City, everything else from the White House to the U.S. Capitol to federal dams and Forest Service cabins are logical targets for other fanatics.

More familiar criminals have forced us into a long retreat from what was once normal life. Across much of America, bank tellers, gas station operators, taxicab drivers, even clerks at convenience stores and dry cleaners deal with their customers through bullet-proof glass.

Our fears and well-publicized incidents tell us armed killers roam the streets and even the schools, preying on luckless victims caught unaware or away from the crowd.

Homes and apartments that years ago were open to family and neighbors are double-locked and bolted.

We've been living for a long time with the criminal threat and the accompanying threat that we can as easily be done in by gun-tofing friends and family, and we're used to it.

We're used to being robbed --not just expecting that some day we night be robbed of our money or our lives, but robbed every day when we can't live as we'd like with-out threat.

We've also beconle aware of crazies who in the past several years have set off bombs at the Capitol and other government buildings, that fact of life now requiring ID badges and metal detector check stations if you want to visit your congressman or go to work or just pay your water bill.

It's not likely the crazies will stop setting off bombs, but Mr. Clinton's closing of Pennsylvania Avenue does what it had to: moves America's most famous dwelling a little farther off an inviting target.

To consider, as the president was asked to consider, that some other truck some day could be parked in front of the White House and, in an instant, nn explosion could blow the executive mansion aud surrounding buildings to smithereens, required nothing less than closure of a portion of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Sadly, that's where we are and where we're going more and more government offices and people in their homes hiding farther down in the bunkers so criminals and crazies won't be tempted to attack.

That one comical note in the president's decision was the muted criticism, most from officials ofthe District of Columbia and some from members of Congress, that they were not consulted before the street in front ofthe "People's House" was closed.

Aside from the obvious fact that any advance notice might have spurred some fanatic to act while the street was still open, the suggestion of consultations the president should have carried out has a certain quality of burlesque.

The Washington city government, led again by its fallen and revived Mayor Marion Barry, a woeful City Council and a bureaucracy so inept it couldn't manage a two-car funeral, would be useful in consultation only in reaching for whatever glory or petty payoffs might have come within reach.

And consult with Congress? It could have taken months of prattle about the need to understand what makes terrorists tick or the need to hang terrorists from the nearest lamppost, or how Sen. Phil Gramm's aged "momma" would use her "little 38-special" to deal with terrorists.

It wasn't a pleasant decision or one to make us proud. But President Clinton made the right decision at the right time.

Leonard E. Lursen is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park