It was a warm sunny late November day, probably the last nice day before winter. I had some work to do and so I decided to go to Lafayette Park, a block from my office, sit on a bench, read and write. While there, I saw what appeared to be a rather remarkable event.
Let me describe the setting.
It was Sunday. Behind me was the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church where, apparently given the number of Secret Service personnel milling about, either the President or Vice President were in attendance. In front of me was the White House and Pennsylvania Avenue. Because Inauguration Day was less than two months away construction work had already begun on the viewing stand and bleachers for that day’s festivities.
Despite all of this activity less than a hundred yards in either direction, the park itself was a peaceful oasis. A few homeless men were ensconced in their usual spots. A number of international tourists were taking pictures. And families, of every ethnicity, were out for a Sunday stroll, feeding squirrels and looking at the park’s monuments. As they walked past me, I overheard French, Spanish, Urdu, British-accented English, Arabic, and Japanese. In all, a rather unremarkable day in the park.
And then, three young men stopped on the grass about thirty feet in front of me, laid out their coats, knelt and began to pray. In fact, only two prayed while one, with a video camera, taped them. As they began, “Allahu Akbar” I must say, I became concerned-in part, for them. With the Secret Service less than 100 yards away, and with park police regularly patrolling the park on bicycle and on foot, I was worried that an incident might occur. What, of course, heightened my concern was the fact that they were video-taping their prayer. Behavior, no doubt, I feared, would appear suspicious to some, foolish to others.
OK, I admit, I’m paranoid. But 9/11 and its aftermath have done that to me. I’ve seen too many incidents of hate and backlash and too many violations of civil rights not to be concerned.
“Why would these guys be doing this?” I thought. “What are they doing? Why put themselves at risk?”
While I sat observing this scene unfold, I noted that the families just kept walking, feeding squirrels and talking among themselves. Tourists kept photographing the monuments, each other, and the park’s beautiful specimen trees. The police, too, continued to walk or bicycle by-all appearing to pay no attention to the three young men praying and taping their prayer in the park.
What made all this appear so remarkable was that it appeared to be unremarkable. Maybe, I thought, I am too paranoid. Maybe America in 2004 is not too different from American in 2000.
Despite the actions of nineteen terrorists and those who set them on their evil mission and despite the hateful ranting of anti-Muslims bigots who preyed off the fear created by 9/11, no one panicked and no one expressed hostility. In fact no one even appeared to notice. Maybe, I thought, the changes we experienced were not so fundamental or transformative. Maybe our national tolerance or our acceptance of diversity had not been compromised.
Maybe, I thought, I had learned an important lesson that Sunday in the park.
As I sat musing over these questions, I noted a uniformed Secret Service agent walking directly toward me and decided to strike up a conversation. What I learned was that I had been both right and wrong. The boys, long since gone, had been noticed. “We’ve received reports.” I was told. “That’s why I’m here,” the officer told me.
No one who passed by appeared to notice. But they did. The police appeared not to react. But they did. No panic, no backlash. Maybe no one acted overtly, but there was clearly a covert surveillance that had observed, taken note, and was now on alert. We had changed, but in a quiet, unobtrusive, and maybe even an ominous way-befitting this apparently unremarkable Sunday in the park.