I was walking through a deserted downtown Washington on Christmas Eve with a friend, past the lonely, gray Treasury Building, past the snowy White House with no president inside.
"I hope the terrorists don't think this is a good time to attack," I said, looking protectively at the White House, which always looks smaller and more vulnerable and beautiful than you expect, no matter how often you see it up close.
I thought our guard might be down because of the holiday; now I realize our guard is down every day.
One thrilling thing about moving from W. to Barack Obama was that Obama seemed like an avatar of modernity.
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W., Dick Cheney and Rummy kept ceaselessly dragging us back into the past. America seemed to have lost her ingenuity, her quickness, her man-on-the-moon bravura, her Bugs Bunny panache.
Were we clever and inventive enough to protect ourselves from the new breed of Flintstones-hardy yet Facebook-savvy terrorists?
W.'s favorite word was "resolute," but despite gazillions spent and Cheney's bluster, our efforts to shield ourselves seemed flaccid.
Obama's favorite word is "unprecedented," as Carol Lee of Politico pointed out. Yet he often seems mired in the past as well, letting his hallmark legislation get loaded up with old-school bribes and pork; surrounding himself with Clintonites; continuing the Bushies' penchant for secrecy and expansive executive privilege; doubling down in Afghanistan while acting as though he's getting out; and failing to capitalize on snazzy new technology while agencies thumb through printouts and continue their old turf battles.
Even before a Nigerian with links to al-Qaida tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet headed to Detroit, travelers could see we had made no progress toward a technologically wondrous Philip K. Dick universe.
We seemed to still be behind the curve and reactive, patting down grannies and 5-year-olds, confiscating snow globes and lip glosses.
Instead of modernity, we have airports where security is so retro that taking away pillows and blankies and bathroom breaks counts as a great leap forward.
If we can't catch a Nigerian with a powerful explosive powder in his oddly feminine-looking underpants and a syringe full of acid, a man whose own father had alerted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, a traveler whose ticket was paid for in cash and who didn't check bags, whose visa renewal had been denied by the British, who had studied Arabic in al-Qaida sanctuary Yemen, whose name was on a counterterrorism watch list, who can we catch?
We are headed toward the moment when screeners will watch watch-listers sashay through while we have to come to the airport in hospital gowns, flapping open in the back.
In a rare bipartisan success, House members tried to prevent the Transportation Security Administration from implementing full-body imaging as a screening tool at airports.
Just because Republicans helped lead the ban on better technology and opposed airport security spending doesn't mean they'll stop Cheneying the Democrats for subverting national security.
Congressman Pete Hoekstra of Michigan was weaselly enough to whack the president and "weak-kneed liberals" in his gubernatorial fundraising letter.
Before he left for vacation, Obama tried to shed his Spock mien and juice up the empathy quotient on jobs. But in his usual inspiring/listless cycle, he once more appeared chilly in his response to the chilling episode on Flight 253, issuing bulletins through his press secretary and hitting the links. At least you have to seem concerned.
On Tuesday, Obama stepped up to the microphone to admit what Janet Napolitano (who learned nothing from an earlier Janet named Reno) had first tried to deny: that there had been "a systemic failure" and a "catastrophic breach of security."
But in a mystifying moment that was not technically or emotionally reassuring, there was no live video, and it looked as though the Obama operation was flying by the seat of its pants.
Given that every utterance of the president is usually televised, it was a throwback to radio days - just at the moment we sought reassurance that our security has finally caught up to "Total Recall."
All that TV viewers heard, broadcast from a Marine base in Kaneohe Bay, was the president's disembodied voice, talking about "deficiencies."
Citing the attempt of the Nigerian's father to warn U.S. authorities six months ago, the president intoned: "It now appears that weeks ago this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect's name on a no-fly list."
In his detached way, Spock was letting us know that our besieged starship was not speeding into a safer new future, and that we still have to be scared.
Heck of a job, Barry.