Rebecca Rider column: Worth the wait

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 31, 2016

I never thought I’d be thankful for Capitol building security. If you’ve ever stood in line for a tour on Capitol Hill, you know what I’m talking about. They don’t let you take anything in, not even a water bottle. But it’s because of this security system that a gun-carrying man was stopped Monday at the entrance to the visitor’s center.

I can barely remember a time without security stops, metal detectors and bag checks, and I’ve never known Washington, D.C. without them.

The first time I visited the U.S. Capitol was in April, 2002. It’d been six months since 9/11, but the city was on lockdown. There was still a visible hole punched in the side of the Pentagon as we drove in on Interstate 395. It was a grim reminder to my 11-year-old self that some things take a long time to heal, and a longer time to forget.

Growing up, my family had an unspoken rule that all vacations and trips had to be educational in some way, shape or form. It should have been easy in D.C., but everyone was on edge, and what should have been a learning experience about the nation’s history turned into an ordeal.

Things were locked away or locked up — shut down, only open certain hours of the day or moved to a ticket-entry model that admitted a small number of people per day. The Smithsonian museums were still open, but otherwise, we had to get a little inventive.

Instead of touring the Capitol building or the White House, we went to the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court and the National Cathedral. Even then, getting through security could take more than an hour, and bags had to be searched and checked into the coat closet.

My mother and I managed to nab tickets for the Washington monument early one morning. But in other areas we weren’t so lucky.

The Capitol building had some of the tightest restrictions. You could still get a tour, but only about 500 people were admitted each day – and tickets ran out fast. My parents, my older sister and I got up before dawn three mornings in a row trying to make it.

We’d take the metro in and stand in the early spring cold, watching the sun come up and waiting to see if we made it in time. The line wrapped around the block, and we spent hours standing there, moving forward at a snail’s pace. In the meantime, my family debated what to do if we couldn’t get four tickets.

If we only got one, it was decided that my sister would go. She was in middle school at the time, learning about U.S. History. On the third day, just after sun up, tickets ran out five people ahead of us. A groan ran up and down the line. After that, we gave up.

It would be 10 years before I found myself standing in front of those doors again. It was November, I was still jetlagged from spending two months overseas and it was raining. They didn’t hand out tickets anymore, but security was still tight.

Personally, I didn’t think it was worth all the fuss I had to go through with security – but I’m also not a historical building enthusiast. But it’s a beautiful building and an important monument, and for many people it is worth the wait. I’m glad there’s someone looking out for it and the thousands of people who queue up, day after day, to stare upwards, open-mouthed in the rotunda – which, just maybe, is worth the wait.