Image: Capitol security
Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images
A U.S. Capitol police officer scans the grounds Wednesday after new tighter security went into effect.
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updated 8/6/2004 3:57:43 AM ET 2004-08-06T07:57:43

Navigating his taxi through five of the new checkpoints set up around the U.S. Capitol, E. Ini pleasantly greeted the police officers who glanced inside his cab yesterday before waving him through. But as he drove by a bomb-sniffing dog poised beside an SUV with its tailgate open for inspection, Ini said he felt a profound sense of loss.

"During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, you didn't see this kind of thing," the 49-year-old Nigerian immigrant said. "Fear shouldn't grip the nation like this. It's demoralizing that a few people could cause a wall of change that affects the city's character and image of this country."

In neighborhood diners and retail stores, on talk radio and in the backs of cabs, a set of decisions this week by the federal government to erect police checkpoints throughout the city and close a major District street has struck a nerve.

For some, it's a necessary precaution in light of new terrorism threats. "It's just a part of being in the world's capital," said Rey Laygo, manager of Gandel's Liquors, a deli and convenience store on Pennsylvania Avenue SE.

For others, though, it reinforces a sense of powerlessness and vulnerability. Beyond the traffic delays and minor inconveniences, the new security around the city has evoked long-standing frustrations over its lack of representation in Congress and over that body's ability to unilaterally set or veto city policy.

"There's a sense that if you had two senators up there and a vote in the House of Representatives, the Congress would be loath to shut down streets without the okay of the city," said Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). "This is a city built on freedom, not on order and efficiency, and we don't often weigh the balance accordingly. Now we're creating this fortress."

The order to close a portion of First Street NE and to set up more than a dozen security checkpoints around the Capitol was announced by U.S. Capitol Police on Monday over the loud objections of Williams and other city officials, who were not consulted. Since then, the federal government has erected more checkpoints -- first near the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and yesterday around the Federal Reserve Building. They also announced that they would block off the sidewalk on 15th Street NW alongside the Treasury building but stopped short of restricting truck traffic on parts of the street.

In the neighborhoods around Capitol Hill, where security is tightest, residents greeted the new measures with a mix of resignation and anger.

Walking his Rottweiler along Second Street NE, just blocks from the barricades, Darryl Payden complained that the new measures were imposed on the neighborhood without any notice or input from the neighbors.

'Big dog'
"It's once again the big dog telling the little dog what to do," the 43-year-old firefighter said. "It's whatever Congress tells us to do."

Standing outside Union Station and waiting for a Metro bus, Juanita Carey noted that the federal government has not rushed in to secure her against the drugs and gunfire she said plague her neighborhood near Central Avenue and the Prince George's County border in Southeast.

"When we need help, we don't get nothing," said the 42-year-old pharmacy worker.

Those sentiments were mild compared with what listeners had to say on WPFW's talk radio program Wednesday morning. Callers inundated the station with complaints of "Gestapo tactics" and fear that the District is turning into a "police state." One caller complained that police who stopped a bus and checked out the passengers also stopped an Arab man in a car while they let a white man whiz by on a bicycle. Adding to the racial overtones of the debate, said host Ron Pinchback, is the fact that the federal officials imposing the new measures are white while the mayor, the police chief and other city leaders who oppose the measures are African American.

"This is tantamount to martial law," he said. "A lot of people are wondering out loud whether this would have been approached the same way if this was a white-run city."

Ron Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and a student of racial politics in the District, said such sentiments aren't surprising.

"All this . . . is to some extent a reminder that blacks feel that, while whites of some status will be given a pass, the people who will be stopped and harassed are people of color," he said.

Federal officials have said that the new measures are needed to protect residents in light of recent information that terrorists might be targeting financial institutions in the District and elsewhere and because intelligence assessments suggest that the Capitol remains a likely target of attack.

"It's expensive, it's inconvenient, but it's safe," said Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer, who issued the order to block First Street. "You put your seat belt on. It's less comfortable, but it's safer. You lock your door before you leave the house because you don't want to get burglarized. We're trying to maximize safety."

As Laticha Romeo waited for a bus to take her from one job at a Popeye's near the Capitol to another at the Navy Yard, she said the new checkpoints make sense. "You never know if it could happen today or tomorrow," said Romeo, 27. "I think they did what they thought was best."

Capitol Hill resident Malien Lane, 20, said she has seen slayings in her neighborhood and has been robbed at gunpoint, so the heavily armed police officers don't make her feel more edgy or safe. "It bothers my friends but not me," Lane said.

Gerard Jacobs, director of the Disaster Mental Health Institution at the University of South Dakota, said residents will become inured to the extra security measures, just as citizens of other countries have.

'Find the sniper'
"It's easier to deal with if people keep in mind that these efforts are being made for their safety," he said.

It's also easier if you don't have to live with it. Tourists wandering the Capitol yesterday said they had no problem with the added security. Robbie Williams, a 35-year-old Los Angeles resident, and his two sons played "find the sniper," scanning rooftops in the hope of spotting armed law enforcement officers.

"It makes me feel comfortable to know that everything is being checked," he said.

But highly visible security can have a detrimental effect for those who must live with it day to day, according to some experts. Rather than make some people feel safer, it can make them feel as though they live in the center of a bull's-eye.

"We can create a neo-medieval society that will profoundly affect our economy, our politics and society itself," said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert and senior adviser at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank. "But we are bordering on creating an atmosphere of terror without the benefit of terrorists."

Exactly how many security checkpoints or how big a police presence it takes to provoke this kind of reaction is unclear, experts said.

"But there's a point at which all this extra security makes people feel less secure, because it reinforces the sense that we are not in a safe place, that we are targets and victims," said Anie Kalayjian, a professor of psychology at Fordham University and author of "Disaster and Mass Trauma."

For Deat LaCour, an organizational consultant, the District may have already reached that point. With signs posting the threat level and intercom reminders telling Metro passengers to watch for suspicious people and packages, the District is "no longer the same place it was."

"The general environment is hostile," said LaCour, 36, as he waited for a fish dinner at Kenny's BBQ on Maryland Avenue NE. "People, whether they know it or not, are on guard."

Jean Claude LeLen, who lives on G Street NE, agreed.

"I think the terrorists are winning," said LeLen, 45. "Liberty should be doing whatever you want, whenever you want."

Staff writers Sari Horwitz and Arielle Levin Becker contributed to this report.

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