LET'S CLOSE PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE, said the whizzes at the Treasury Department. That'll keep the White House secure.
And so traffic was banned from one of the most famous stretches of roadway in the United States, and three days later, what do you know, the security of the White House was breached once more. Lance Modjeski, a recently fired pizza delivery man carrying an unloaded antique revolver, jumped the White House fence last Tuesday night and managed to run to within 50 feet of the mansion before being tackled and shot by the Secret Service.
Now, Modjeski may be a loony -- "There is some indication of a mental history," says Assistant US Attorney Eric Dubelier, the prosecutor on the case -- but he wasn't so deranged as to try breaking into the White House from Pennsylvania Avenue. He went around the corner, onto East Executive Avenue, and scaled the fence there. On Friday, yet another interloper, Andrew Meig Jopling, did the same thing in the same place. So maybe the whizzes should close that street to traffic?
Whoops, too late. East Executive Avenue was blocked off 12 years ago. West Executive Avenue has been closed since World War II. It's going to take more than street closures to keep intruders away. Perhaps a perimeter wall of reinforced concrete would do the trick.
Of course, that wouldn't have stopped Frank Corder, would it? He was the kamikaze who suicide-crashed a stolen Cessna into the president's house in September, somehow evading the radar that is designed to alert the White House to diving aircraft. What's to stop future Corders? A SAM missile battery?
And why allow even pedestrians to remain on Pennsylvania Avenue? After all, that's where Francisco Duran was standing last Oct. 29, when he pulled a rifle out from under his coat and began firing at the White House. Perhaps -- just to be on the safe side -- walkers, too, should have to steer several blocks clear of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
I don't minimize the need for presidential safety. Protecting the First Family is an obvious national priority. The Secret Service doesn't fool around, nor would we want it to, this being a country in which tens of thousands of murders are committed each year, and a world in which terrorists have refined to a science the practice of indiscriminate slaughter.
But while turning the White House, step by step, into an inaccessible bunker may ward off the attack of a trained terrorist, it won't dispel the aura of danger that is so palpable in Washington, especially at night. Rerouting traffic may stop fanatic suicide bombers. It won't make Pennsylvania Avenue feel safer. It won't restore a sense of order and civility to a community that is unraveling into disorder and brutishness.
And that is exactly the sort of community in which the president of the United States is housed.
In Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, the bums and winos have taken over. They sleep on the benches, strew trash where they like, urinate openly. These are not temporarily unemployed unfortunates. They are unsocialized derelicts who have turned a beautiful public space into squalor and blight -- and been allowed to get away with it.
The sleaze in nearby Farragut Square is even worse -- a magnet for mental cases, drunks, and vulgar misfits. Worse still is the intersection of 21st and C streets, directly in front of the State Department, where vagrants and beggars have created a squatter camp, complete with scrounged furniture, portable stoves, and the reek of human waste.
These places are gothic nightmares, suppurating social sores where the norms of civilized life no longer apply. They send a message as blatant as a billboard: Here, there are no standards, no rules. Here, people live like animals and degenerates, befouled and primitive, and nothing is done to stop them.
This is known as defining deviancy downward. In Washington and other cities, these grotesque public blotches proclaim not just that uncivilized behavior is permissible, but that officials are indifferent to the rot they represent. Faced with lawsuits from "homeless advocates" who fight to prevent antivagrancy laws from being enforced, or with idiotic rulings from judges declaring aggressive panhandling and urinating in the street to be expressions of individual freedom, too many cities just give up the fight.
The price of that abandonment is steep. Like the unfixed broken window that leads to more broken windows, then to broken buildings, then to broken people, uncontrolled disorderly behavior leads to even uglier decay, then to crime, finally to a Hobbesian horror show of violence and cruelty. Washington, with one of the highest murder rates in the nation, is far down the spiral.
With menacing anarchy literally across the street, is it any wonder weirdos jump the White House fence or fire rifles through it? Messed-up malcontents like Lance Modjeski and Francisco Duran will be among us always. But whether they hold themselves together or flip over the edge has something to do with what society says is expected of them. The message from Lafayette Park, from Farragut Square, from 21st and C, is that nothing is expected, and nobody cares.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)