Homeland Security done Super Bowl style

    Experience has shown me that working for the Guardian has many perks, such as opportunities to report on something larger than UCSD — namely, the Super Bowl taking place in San Diego.

    Although I was not offered an unlimited-access press pass for game day, I did end up with the next best thing: a one-day pass to attend a Jan. 24 press conference featuring most of the pre- and post-game performers: Santana, Michelle Branch, Beyonce Nowles, Dixie Chicks, Janet Maxwell, Styx and Bon Jovi. The National Football League public relations people arranged with my editor to send one photographer and one writer, me.

    Attending a real press conference with MTV-sized stars adds a certain degree of excitement to my normal Friday off. I really only needed to interview Janet Maxwell, who was performing a sign-language interpretation of the national anthem while the Dixie Chicks performed the vocal version.

    I arrived at Qualcomm Stadium just about on time for the midday press conference and easily found parking in the asphalt plains around the stadium.

    Since I was supposedly on the list and was told I only needed a photo ID, I went directly to the media entrance at Gate D and was quickly turned away after suspicious scrutiny of my de facto press credentials (my student ID and a recent copy of the Guardian). A series of frantic cell phone calls back and forth to my NFL contact and 45 minutes after the press conference had started, I remained outside the security perimeter. Patience and a promise from my contact to work things out made me stay.

    While I waited, two men bearing rifles approached the gate and tried to pass the security guard. One was dressed in a Civil War-era uniform and the other dressed as a World War I doughboy.

    I felt better, seeing that despite their show of force, the security guard turned them away as well. I thought, by comparison, that with my pen, reporter’s notebook and tape recorder, I looked like the lesser threat.

    I ran and caught up with the Union soldier, who told me his name was Ken Walker. He was a member of the Sons of Union Veterans and would be a part of the pre-game show. I asked if he was turned away from Gate D because of his rifle.

    “”Oh no,”” he said. “”They’re not worried about the guns.””

    He said they did not have proper credentials either.

    As I returned to Gate D to wait, I recalled this past summer, which I spent in Washington, D.C. I interned about seven blocks northeast of the Capitol.

    Over the course of the summer, I made many trips to the Library of Congress buildings, which are located behind the eastern face of the Capitol and next to the Supreme Court. To make the trip shorter, I would cut across the property on which the Capitol sits.

    Walking past the concrete barriers that now block all road access into the Capitol’s grounds, I was surprised at how accessible the property was for pedestrians, even right up the steps of the building. Capitol Police were everywhere, but subtle and not readily visible once inside the perimeter. For a period during the summer, a man was able to set up along with anti-abortion posters a life-sized mannequin of Jesus on the eastern steps of the building. It was pretty popular with children.

    From what I read in D.C. tour books printed before 9/11, public access, once inside the Capitol, was virtually unlimited. One book encouraged visitors to break away from the guided tour and wander the halls since it was “”the people’s house.”” Tours today through the Capitol are shorter and visitors must stay with their tour groups.

    The differences I wish to make between the security measures taken for the Super Bowl this year, compared with those visible around the Capitol — a building that was the 9/11 hijackers’ fourth target — was my feeling of vulnerability.

    Having to wind my way through checkpoint after checkpoint, being worried about the validity of my credentials and scrutinizing security everywhere, makes me feel more insecure than an apparent absence of security.

    Europeans are shameless when it comes to security. When I visited Spain and France for the first time in 1999, I remember seeing guards armed with submachine guns standing outside government buildings and in train stations. That never used to happen in America. My dad once characterized the difference for me: When an American sees a police officer, he thinks there will be trouble; when a European sees one, he knows there will not be any.

    Why were Californians outraged when Gov. Gray Davis announced in the early months after 9/11 that there was a threat posed to the state’s bridges? Were we really angry because the governor leaked the information, or was it because for the first time we felt vulnerable?

    I eventually did make it inside the perimeter fence, thanks to patience and being personally escorted into the stadium to interview Janet Maxwell. Now credentialed, I found my way to the field and watched the pre-game show dancers practice and some of the Oakland Raiders on the green turf practicing kicking field goals. It was beautiful.

    Maybe Qualcomm Stadium is a microcosm of America. Perhaps the show of security outside, despite the feelings of vulnerability it incites in me, is merely a perimeter around something precious, pure and American … and that needs to be protected.

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