An Unexpected Act of Civil Obedience

My wife and I were attending a conference in Washington DC last week. After the lunch lecture on Thursday I had reached my threshold of sitting in a hotel ballroom listening to presentations, so I slipped outside for a little fresh air. A few moments later, I found myself standing before the WWII Memorial on the National Mall. I follow the news, so I was somewhat prepared for what I saw, but I was still determined to visit the WWII Memorial. Nonetheless, I am at a loss to describe the emotional impact of this experience. This monument to a great victory of freedom over tyranny has, at least temporarily, become the tool of a tyrant. Rented barricades (rental company information was attached to each barricade) were erected around the open air monument. Each barricade was securely affixed to the next by a heavy security cable. I walked around to the south side of the monument (the Pacific gate), where three Park Rangers stood by a less securely barricaded entrance. A sign was posted there declaring, “Due to the federal government shutdown, this National Park Service Area is closed, except for 1st amendment activities.” I asked one of the rangers how the park service was interpreting 1st amendment activities these days. His answer made it clear that anyone bold enough to confront this ranger would be allowed to enter. It was with an odd mix of emotions that I walked down the curved ramp into the memorial. As I stood alone before the wall paneled with gold stars (each representing the sacrificed lives of 100 Americans), I suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly found myself in prayer. I prayed for the families of those whose lives were represented on the wall in front of me. I prayed for the freedoms and the nations they died to protect. I prayed for a good many things. As I moved away from that spot and began to view the rest of the memorial, it dawned on me that, like it or not, I was in compliance with the unreasonable Park Service limitations on visiting the site, having exercised my religion by praying to God while there.

I visited the WWII memorial several times in the next two days and each visit was a deeply moving experience. When I came on Friday morning, a sterner threesome of Park Rangers were at the Pacific gate. No one was inside the memorial area, though some people were milling about outside, despite the drizzle. The sign at the Pacific gate mentioning the 1st amendment was gone and the barricades there were pulled tightly together, though not cabled. I told one of the rangers that I understood that the memorial was open for 1st amendment activities and made it clear that I intended to enter. She affirmed that I was correct but none of the three Rangers standing there made any motion to allow me in. I moved the barricade myself and none of the Rangers did anything to help or stop me. Within ten minutes or so, a small crowd of probably 60 to 80 people were inside, including a tour group that included two WWII vets who I was told were in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrender was signed.

As I read the inspiring quotations inscribed on the walls of the memorial, one touched me particularly. I may have been initially drawn to it because the author was a fellow Texan, but I think the current relevance of his message is what really made it connect:

They fought together as brothers-in-arms. They died together and now sleep side by side. To them we have a solemn obligation. – Admiral Chester W. Nimitz

I believe that a part of that solemn obligation is to honor their sacrifices by restoring and then preserving the freedoms for which these brave warriors fought. Our “soft tyranny” is progressively becoming more hard and prickly, and we are perilously close to the situation Ronald Reagan warned of when we can only tell stories to future generations of “what it was once like in the United States where men were free”.

I visited several other monuments and memorials. It was stunning to discover that the 1st amendment is not protected at the Lincoln Memorial or even the Jefferson Memorial. I found it particularly disturbing that it was deemed necessary to have three armed National Park Police officers protecting the Jefferson Memorial against such potential 1st amendment outbursts. One officer was even carrying an AR pattern rifle in a surprisingly threatening position (not slung, but rather with one hand on the pistol grip with finger extended along the side of the trigger guard and the other hand on the fore stock as he mounted the steps of the memorial).

We know that we are a long way down “the road to serfdom” when the executive branch of the US government will go to such extremes: using the National Park Service against the citizenry in an effort to exert its own power against the will of the people. We must not allow an entity that would do something this disgusting with a tool as innocuous-seeming as a park service to take control of how the citizens access health care services.