Just a quick last word -- hopefully -- on Pope Francis' visit to Philadelphia. It was definitely a blessed day -- and not just because the Birds finally won a game and Jonathan Papelbon imploded at almost precisely the instant that the Vicar of Christ took to the big stage near Eakins Oval. For most people, the weekend was what it was -- the crowd wasn't remotely close to the 1.5 million that city officials once spoke of, and it was probably considerably less than the 860,000 number that widely circulated Sunday night. But I think -- and this is what really matters -- that the pious people who really, really wanted to see Pope Francis...saw Pope Francis. Does it matter if that number was 200,000 or 2 million?
Of course, some of the faithful only saw the pontiff on a Jumbotron. That security -- it was too much, man...and not in the good sense.
I took a long stroll around Center City late Sunday morning and the whole scene away from the Parkway was borderline apocalyptic. Some of it was surreal and cool -- watching a dad seize a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play soccer with his son in the middle of 16th Street, packs of cyclists cruising the city like they were on the Wissahickon Trail. But there were concrete barriers just strewn about like matchsticks in the oddest places, eerily empty windswept streets...and on almost every corner, a gaggle of fresh-faced National Guardsmen, in full camouflage, just hanging around.
There just didn't need to be so gosh darn many of them. No matter how friendly the actual Guardsmen, cops, et cetera, were, there was something very "Mad Max"-y about the barren streets and the troops stationed everywhere. But the worst aspect, by all accounts, was the hassle created by Secret Service checkpoints and the necessity to run everyone who got within a country mile of Pope Francis run through a magnetometer and carry out a full bag search, so that pilgrims could surrender their dangerous objects...like apples. (Were they worried that the pope would tell a Philly-booing-Santa-Claus joke and people would throw fruit at him?).
The security checkpoints marred the day for many pilgrims who spent two, three, hours or more waiting in a line, and it totally ruined the experience for some who traveled great distances to see Francis, only to end up plopped in front of a Jumbotron 20 blocks away. And I don't understand what it accomplished. Was the pope himself a tad safer? Maybe -- although pilgrims at other open-air papal visits in places like Cuba or Ecuador didn't face such excessive security. Was the crowd -- a "soft target," in the grim parlance of "the war on terror" -- made safer by the checkpoints? Not really, since an evildoer could have struck them on either side of the magnetometers, right?
In the end, the show of force looked more like a show of fear -- a case where American exceptionalism was merely our exceptional paranoid obsession with security. The troop buildup was a giant money suck, taking dollars away from the common good, and it was absolutely a restriction on one of the freedoms that Americans have come to cherish the most -- freedom of movement. I can't help but think the whole experience made us look like a weak nation to vistors from other lands.
Of course, while 9/11 will always be cited as the justification for this over-the-top protection of "the homeland," the only possible real justification for checkpoints is not so much al-Qaeda as the fact that America is a nation awash in guns, the bulk of them legal. Personally, I prefer the right to move freely from place to place over the right to pack heat. Because this weekend made it clear that the United States is a place that can't easily handle both at the same time.