Thursday, March 13, 2008

Security Overkill

I guess it was inevitable. Gretna, Louisiana has gone post-9/11.

A few months ago, I gave the prayer before the City Council meeting. Currently, the ACLU is challenging such prayers in Louisiana, so these might become a quaint reminder of a past, less enlightened era (like school bands playing Dixie and mothers staying home with their children).

Anyway, at that time, I walked the four blocks to City Hall from my home, strode up the steps, and, was in the council chambers in a matter of minutes. No metal detectors and guards at the door (as is the case with the more high-tech steel-and-glass and more wealthy Jefferson Parish Courthouse a couple blocks away). It was really nice and refreshing to walk up the creaky wooden steps of the old Greek revival courthouse with the old building smell and not have to be concerned about being subjected to radiation or a cavity search. Gretna, Louisiana (population: 17,500) is, after all, not Manhattan or Tel Aviv.

But that has apparently changed.

I was invited to give the invocation again, this time for yesterday's council meeting. Only now upon my arrival, there was a bottleneck at the door of the 19th century building, as the narrow portal was this time dominated by a beeping metal detector and two armed police officers running security detail.

Good Lord!

The man in front of me was a photographer, and so one officer had to carefully inspect each pole of his tripod, while another examined his camera like an anthropologist studying a bronze-age femur. Indeed, you can't be too careful these days about tripod-warfare and the ever-lurking menace of the camera bomb. We've all seen Get Smart reruns. Confusion reigned as another guy was immodestly removing his jacket and stripping off his belt, trying to go through again. A lady failed the metal detector test, and had to remove her bracelet and re-enter. Another fellow was awkwardly taking off his cowboy boots as the cop explained about all the nails in the soles. And, of course, I thought to myself, boot nails can be used by Al Qaida operatives to overthrow the government. Vigilance is the price of liberty...

Meanwhile, it was already time for the meeting to begin, and I was still stuck at the door like a helpless human airline-chattel having his toothpaste tube inspected while waiting to be crammed into the hold with the other irate passengers. On this day, I had no time to dilly-dally, as I needed to be back at my church in less than half an hour.

When it was my turn for inspection, I had to clean out my pockets (not an easy task when one is wearing a cassock over top of cargo pants). Into the plastic tray with my wallet, cell phone, Palm device, two sets of keys, and a pocket watch (which I had to un-attach from my belt loop through the pocket hole of my cassock). All of this was being done as other folks were trying to squeeze through for the meeting. Finally, off with my crucifix and ring, and I successfully made it through.

Miraculously, my belt did not set off the alarm. But then again, that could indicate a gaping hole in The Security System of the City of Gretna (everybody panic!).

As I went to collect my things, one of the cops opened my wallet and was carefully examining the inside. His eyes darted back and forth warily between the two sides of the crease in the fake leather. I feel safer knowing that nobody is going to smuggle the monopoly-token pistol secreted next to his Visa card into Council Chambers and thereby initiating a potential hostage situation.

Next, the guard felt compelled to inspect my Palm device, only he didn't know how to open it. The metal case is held shut with the latest in "rubber band technology," so I was able to assist the officer with the complex opening procedure. After peering at the screen of my Palm (including the small PalmPak Dictionary Thesaurus Card in plain sight), looking here and there, he was satisfied that it wasn't a top secret death-ray device from the Planet Neptune, closed it up, and courteously placed it back in the basket. It amazed me how nobody seemed in the least bit annoyed or puzzled by this Lewis Carrollish tableau. They could have asked us all to get completely naked, flap our arms, and cluck like chickens, and I suspect nearly every person would have done so gladly.

While others were still stripping off and re-dressing themselves in the broom-closet sized Base of Security Operations at the door, I managed to get all my stuff gathered up and ascended the creaky stairs for the meeting. Of course, it started late - but amazingly, not too late. I was able to invoke the Almighty, pray for God's servants in the government, and scoot out in time for Bible class back at Salem. On my way out the door, the metal detector beeped at me. Yeah, same to you, buddy!

I do want to make it clear that I support Gretna's City government - especially the police. In spite of being attacked by politically-correct outsiders, the Gretna Police (under the able leadership of Chief Lawson) took charge of the chaotic post-Katrina situation and protected the city from looters. They took a lot of heat for doing so, but aside from the Oakwood Mall being looted and burned (it was vandalized so badly that it just reopened a few weeks ago, more than two years after the storm), the armed bands of thugs that terrorized other areas were largely kept out of Gretna. Coming up on three years after Katrina, our city still has signs that say "Thank you Chief Lawson and Gretna Police" on display around town. My hat is off to these guys.

Gretna is well-run, and its elected officials are certainly accessible. My complaints about the overbearing security are not a slight against them, but rather a commentary on our larger paranoid (and opportunistic) culture of overblown "security."

I believe this is how things went down: After 9/11, someone saw an opportunity. Every courthouse and town hall in America would need increased security - or at least the appearance of it. The Ubiquitous Enemy could strike at any moment anywhere. No American burg or village was safe (what a market opportunity!). The metal detector manufacturers lobbied Congress, and Federal grant moneys for smaller cities like Gretna were approved. Over the next few months and years, small-town city halls around America became "secure" - while the legislators congratulated themselves for "doing something" and the metal detector companies hit the big time. It also makes Gretna look like Someplace Important, being that the mayor and city council need metal detectors, just like the President of the United States and the Sultan of Brunei. Now, the above scenario is pure speculation, but I don't exactly think I'm going out on a limb here.

Of course, it's all very silly. No terrorist is going to attack Gretna's City Hall.

And yes, there is always the odd chance of an odd gunman committing an odd act of violence (as recently in Kirkwood, Missouri). That's the case anywhere - parks, schools, private homes, gas stations, stadiums, ferry stations, day care centers, public libraries, churches, WalMarts, etc. A miscreant could inflict a heckuva lot more terror in someplace other than the place where the dates for Mardi Gras parades are decided on, and where dog licenses are recorded - especially given that there are armed police officers at City Council meetings.

I think we've become hysterical about "security" to the point of irrationality, and some business owners have leveraged the current anti-free-market system of taxes, grants, and top-down regulation to take advantage - as opposed to relying on genuine supply and demand in a real free market. But then again, artificially creating demand is the art of marketing, and American affluence and desire to "keep up with the Joneses" has become a way of life - even if it means cashing in on 9/11 and capitalizing on the rare incidents in which gunmen run amok.

All things considered, maybe I'll just pass next time I'm invited to give the prayer at City Hall. I know this much: if I get there next time and see a uniformed guy at the door wearing a rubber glove, I'll be doing a quick one-eighty and City Council can just say its own prayers!

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