Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Cherishing a Spectacular View

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, May 28, 2002 --  

The vista down the Mall from the Capitol terrace is one of the most impressive in America. A slim expanse of green stretches for miles, appearing to narrow in the distance until it reaches the illuminated marble of the Lincoln Memorial. The Washington Monument, centered in this expanse of green, glows from fluttering beams of light that are momentarily broken by shadows of the fifty American flags ringing the immense obelisk. Surrounding this fantastic scene are stately stone buildings, distant high rise towers, and the gleaming lights of the city beyond.

It is one thing to visit the Mall up close, but it is quite another to see it in its entirety. From the Capitol steps, you can fully see the graceful design initiated by Pierre L'Enfant shortly after America's birth, and completed by the McMillan Commission a century ago.

Though it has few rivals in this country, the view is not available to everyone. Fifteen minutes after the close of the Memorial Day concert on the Capitol lawn, police began to clear citizens from the top of the Capitol steps that serve as the only vantage point for this sight. It was the first and only day since last September 11 that the general population was allowed to approach the Capitol Terrace, and the congressional leadership offices that face it. That day was coming to an end.

It was a bittersweet end to a very different Memorial Day. The concert on the Capitol lawn, which featured the National Symphony Orchestra playing patriotic music, and pop stars providing narrative and vocal accompaniment, is a beautifully democratic event. In past years, people simply wandered onto the lawn with their picnics and lawn chairs. Lobbyists from Georgetown, congressional staffers from nearby apartments, and teachers on vacation from Mississippi all bumped elbows in the shadow of the Capitol dome.

Though it was fantastic to see the concert go on this year, it was not the same as before. A temporary security perimeter had been created around the lawn, with magnetometers screening guests at each entrance. Picnic baskets were subject to search by uniformed police. And the families with children, who usually fill at least half of the audience, were glaringly absent. Fear of terrorism, apparently, had kept them away. In all, the crowd was probably no larger than half the size as in recent years. And the Capitol Terrace itself, the platform that offers such an incredible view down the Mall, was closed to concertgoers. Only the steps leading up to it were briefly open to the public.

Two other similar concerts are held annually on Independence Day and Labor Day. It was about a week after the previous concert, in September of last year, that a highjacked airliner bound for Washington crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside. Only the heroic measures of the rebellious passengers prevented the plane from reaching the city. Had the plane not been stopped, many believe it would have plunged directly into the Capitol dome, taking far fewer lives than in the World Trade Center, but exacting a comparable blow on Americans' national consciousness. Had this happened, the site of the Memorial Day concert would have been another Ground Zero.

A mention of this narrow escape was starkly absent from the orations and ballads at the concert on the Capitol lawn. Perhaps it was a conscious effort to avoid creating fear in a crowd that was already reduced by frayed nerves. Perhaps it was a subconscious desire to get beyond the tragic events of last fall by dealing only with the tragedy that was, and not the tragedy that might have been.

Whatever the reason, I was simply thankful that I could be there to ponder the question. Sitting under the gleaming Capitol dome in the warm air with the shimmering lights of the city beyond, I was acutely aware of how lucky we are that this concert was able to go on as planned.