We’ve been in the Washington, D.C., area for the past five weeks. I lived and worked here not so many years ago, just a couple of blocks from the National Mall, at the State Department. My final year as a foreign service officer was spent working as a liaison with Capitol Hill, taking ambassadorial nominees to meet senators and helping them through their confirmation hearings. I worked the Hill in my subsequent job as well.
All of which is to say, never, ever did I imagine that the place I shuttled back and forth to, the city I worked in, the National Mall — with its museums, monuments and green space — would be a highly militarized Green Zone. Never, ever.
How is it possible that just four years ago, thousands upon thousands poured into Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March — a sea of peaceful protesters. I was there, too, when people on planes cheered the pink pussy hats and we celebrated our ability to come together and marveled at the civic outpouring.
The only times in my diplomatic career that I encountered this level of militarization were in East Germany (leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall) and in southeast Turkey, in the mid-1990s, at the height of the PKK insurgency.
Insurgency — in our Capitol, where I have walked the halls, ridden the underground trams and sat in committee meeting rooms. The National Mall, where I strolled whenever I wanted to get away from the office;
10 minutes to the Lincoln Memorial and the reflecting pool that mirrored the symmetry of this city.
I tried to drive into D.C. last Friday. The closest I could get to the National Mall was six blocks. Every intersection was blocked by National Guard vehicles and soldiers. We passed a bus stop with an FBI “seeking information poster” plastered with photos. My 3-year old granddaughter sat in the back seat, taking it in: Buildings, hotels, stores and museums were boarded up and fenced off. Never did I ever.
All around the country people are seeing the pictures. It’s real. But the surreal nature of this reality, here in our nation’s capital, may not really sink in if you haven’t worked here, haven’t lived here — and haven’t lived overseas in places where strong men employ the military to protect against the people.
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In this case, the National Guard — led by Chief Jose Andre, housed in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center — is allowing our transfer of civilian power to take place. So please believe me when I tell you: It’s real, it’s jolting and it’s the stuff of nightmares.
We must never forget this inflection point in our national history. Never, ever. We must do everything in our power to speak truth, combat white supremacy, combat rampant racism, open up this city and erect guardrails for our democracy that do not depend solely on people’s good will. I want to be able to tell my granddaughter when she is older that we stood up, spoke out and did whatever it took when it mattered.
Janice Weiner of Iowa City is a former foreign service officer for the U.S. State Department.