At the Purple Gate

Now that Obama’s inauguration is over, criticism has inevitably begun — starting with the inaugural festivities on Tuesday. As has been reported locally, thousands of “lucky” attendees were inexplicably kept from their promised places — “silver” and “purple” ticketholders. This has produced an outcry — on the Internet, at least; the Facebook groups are a-flyin’.

One unfortunate couple posted a brief photo essay of their experience. This is sad; these folks spent money to go down there, with high hopes, and wound up trapped in a tunnel for four hours.

But I’m afraid that these pictures tell a bigger story than just a bad day at the Inaugural — and it’s nothing to do with Obama himself, or even Bush (some are blaming the outgoing administration for the poor crowd control). It’s about how we got to this point at all. It’s the story of how we got into this mess in the first place, how we got into Iraq and Afghanistan with barely a struggle, how we wound up on the brink of a global depression with banking CEOs still snagging multimillion-dollar bonuses as ordinary people lose their entire lives.

Too sweeping a metaphor, too much of a generalization? I don’t think so. For many years, the American public has been far too trusting and too willing to be herded. Life has gotten so complex that no one has any inclination or energy to question where they are being asked to “wait” — to wait for benefits that are due them, to wait for an end to the wars and for their loved ones to come home, to wait for what has been promised. Yes, good Americans are “glad to see all the security” parked about. They believe the security forces are there to protect their faraway dreams and to smooth their path to the realization of those dreams. They don’t know the lay of the political land, the map of power, so they trust. They go where they are told. What else can they do?

They wait patiently, quietly, in the closed tunnel.

Another group of wait-ers, not the ones who took these pictures, posted of their experience at the head of the line, just at the threshold of the Purple Gate:

I got in, but only because my wife took over the gate from the cops who were standing there bewildered in a little sheep-like cluster discussing where to run when the mob finally pushed the fence over.

And sadly that is also telling. Too few people at the head of the line took control of their own destiny in an assertive but civil manner. If more people had done what they did, maybe many more of those footsore and cold people stuck in the tunnel might have gotten past the gate. But there was no mob scene, no tunnel stampede (thank God); just tired and dispirited people who not only quitted the tunnel, but quitted the whole transportation system, walking miles back to the airport themselves, feeling bewildered and angry. Beyond them, far above them, on the other side of the Purple Gate, a new president spoke. They didn’t hear him.

I don’t understand how thousands of people can stay backed up in a tunnel, unless they wish to be. There is such a thing as being too orderly. People really have to learn how to effectively speak up for themselves, in the face of police even, or else this is how they’re going to end up. But I believe that next time “justice is denied,” people aren’t going to be so nice about it. “Crashing the Gates” has been a popular slogan, co-opted by enterprising online political profiteers for the past eight years (and they have kept would-be activists neatly penned up in a similar, albeit virtual, manner). But in real life, it has yet to reach expression.

I don’t blame the individuals taken off guard and tired and in the cold like this, but there is a sobering lesson in these pictures nevertheless. What will happen the next time?