The recent “crashing” of a Presidential State Dinner by a couple of wannabe celebrity publicity hounds sends chills up my spine, especially motivated by the picture of them being greeted by President Obama. It inspires the unthinkable.
It recalls the unavoidable “A” word, assassination, and to my mind, it is the most serious breach of security in recent memory, the consequences of which might have resulted in the most disruptive act in the history of our country. Indeed, the life of our President, whether we agree with his policies or not, is our most cherished living symbol, the jewel of our democratic aspirations.
If this sounds alarmist it should be, and I am appalled at this lapse by the vaunted Secret Service charged with the protection of the President. In this case, heads must roll and the procedures for the protection of our President reviewed and severely tightened. The celebrity-obsessed media, in my opinion, have been too kind to both the perpetrators and the protectors. It is a dangerous flaw in editorial management and exposes their ignorance and historical illiteracy.
Perhaps I am too sensitive about the subject since it formed the basis for the first book in my Fiona FitzGerald mystery series, “American Quartet”. The title refers to the assassination of four of our Presidents, McKinley, Garfield, Lincoln and Kennedy and a failed politician who replicated these assassinations by random murders that referenced the circumstances of these four assassinations.
While the motivation for these terrible acts were based upon whatever inner demons were torturing these murderers, the fact is that a determined assassin of single-minded purpose can be stopped only by an equally determined and aggressive defense.
Garfield was shot by a disgruntled office seeker who intruded on the President’s party while they waited to board a train in Washington D.C. Obviously he was not well guarded and the assassin easily mingled with the Presidential party. McKinley was shot by an anarchist who had disguised his weapon with bandages. He was well guarded when he stood greeting well wishers at the opening of an important event in Buffalo, New York.
Lincoln as we know, was shot by the actor John Wilkes Booth. He, too, was guarded, albeit lightly, but Booth, a familiar face at the Ford Theater knew all the entry and exit points and was easily able to insinuate himself behind the box in which Lincoln was sitting watching the play. He also knew the applause and laughter high points which guided his timing to shoot.
John Kennedy was extremely well guarded by dedicated secret service agents whose ring of protection was easily penetrated by a determined assassin acting out of personal rage. Assassination attempts at Franklin Roosevelt, Truman and Ford were miraculously aborted by sheer luck. Reagan unfortunately did suffer the pain of a direct hit by a mentally unstable youth, but survived. The attempt on his life forced a revamping of Secret Service protective methods and changed forever Presidential access in every situation. Apparently it needs even more severe tightening.
What this tells us is that a dedicated and determined killer will, if he or she is so motivated, find a way to activate his or her mission unless thwarted by the most psychologically and technologically sophisticated methods of defensive interdiction. Of course, the Secret Service knows this and all its agents are brave men and women who understand that, if it comes down to it, they will take a bullet meant for the President or anyone else in their charge. They know too, that however efficient their protective ring, it is imperfect and at times luck and coincidence can play their miraculous and mysterious part in the process of protection.
They know too, that it is impossible to prevent all scenarios and surely have gamed all the possibilities of penetration by foes determined to achieve their terrible objectives. Indeed, we often fail to realize how difficult their task is. On a larger landscape, think of how our intelligence agencies must react to counter perhaps untold numbers of terrorists plotting ways to penetrate our defenses and achieve another Twin Towers disaster or kill our leaders.
One shudders to remember that the plane that hit the Pentagon might have been originally aimed at either the White House or the Capitol building with even more horrendous consequences.
Unfortunately, what is dead certain, despite whatever denials or rationalizations that memory often misinterprets or gets glazed over by time, is that there is someone or groups of someones out there bent on an act of assassination or terrorism that is chilling to contemplate. There are those who might call such a statement, unfettered paranoia. I call it acknowledgement of historical precedent, which has illustrated time and again the thin line that separates the human species from evil impulses.
Whether we like it or not we are living our lives in America under a sword of Damocles and are ultimately largely dependent upon government agents to protect us and our leaders.
There are those who might interpret the laxness of our protective ring around the President as representing a creeping paradigm of denial. The high minded absurdity of giving the perpetrators of 9/11 the soapbox of a New York trial in a civilian court, that will certainly stir the hearts of our enemies and encourage them to greater heights of creative destruction, seems to come directly out of the playbook of our enemies.
The argument that such a trial will illustrate our moral values pales beside the ultimate value of the human species, which is survival. Yes, I can still thrill to the great injunction of Patrick Henry and his over-the- top rhetorical cry of “Give me Liberty or Give me Death.” Despite its heroic trappings it is an odd and hopeless choice. Death presumes there can be no hope of liberty. And the absence of liberty assumes that death is the only option. How about “Give me liberty and the courage to fight for it by whatever means necessary”.
But the case of the White House crashers whose names I will not use as a personal protest to their sick celebrity drenched ambitions must be examined with relentless energy. The next crasher might achieve the unthinkable that will surely unhinge the nation in ways too horrible to contemplate.