During the 2008 Primary season Barack Obama visited the IU campus and made an appearance at the "Little 500" bike race, the school's signature event as depicted in the film Breaking Away. I prefer to call it Drinking & Biking week, as it is essentially seven days of the campus looking like Bon Jovi's tour bus circa 1986. Obama paid a visit to a portion of this event and boldly waded into a crowd of several thousand balls-drunk 18 through 20 year-olds. At the time I had the same feeling that I had on Tuesday as I saw the crowd of 2,000,000+ strewn about Washington: man, the Secret Service's job blows.
The Secret Service (which I will abbreviate "SS" regardless of the unsavory historical associations with that pairing) spent its first 150 years as part of the Treasury Department, joining Homeland Security only in 2003. Their job was and remains overwhelmingly focused on busting counterfeiters. The figure of the SS agent is stereotyped and quite recognizable – sunglasses, earpiece, lapel pins (which are changed hourly to make identification of fake SS agents easy), dark suits, and folded hands. It leads most Americans to believe that they are the President's private guard; in reality they're probably better described as the private army of the United States Dollar. Their task of protecting the President is a 20th Century invention and it occupies only a fraction of its personnel. And to my way of thinking it is one of the worst jobs imaginable.
The simple fact is that there's very, very little that the SS can do to protect any of its various VIP charges. Watching Obama wade into a group of 5,000 drunk kids or parade before 2,000,000 people and every window in Washington makes it very obvious that protecting the President is like trying to bail out a ship with a bucket – the only thing to do is pray that the water never comes. If it does, well, there's not much to be done.
There just isn't a way for the Secret Service to secure every window, every person, every sewer cover, and every car that will come near enough to the President to do him harm. And let's not even talk about what happens when he goes overseas; trying to secure the President in Central Africa has to involve phenomenal amounts of prayer and finger-crossing. The best defense they have is preventive – discovering and interrupting individuals or groups who may want to harm the President before anything happens. Aside from that, history has shown that the President is vulnerable and there are always a handful of crackpots out there who set their warped sights on attacking him. I'd love to think that the new President and all who succeed him will avoid that problem. The odds are not in his favor, though. Every recent President has had one or more serious brushes with death and only remarkable luck saved a few of them.
Reagan was hit by a bullet that missed all vital organs. Bush Senior was targeted with a huge explosive device that was only discovered at the last moment by Kuwaiti police. A guy walked right up to the White House and opened fire on Clinton with a WWII-era semi-automatic rifle, getting off 29 shots. And, in an incident that received almost no media coverage but saved him from death only by incredible luck, a man had no trouble tossing a hand grenade at George W. Bush in Tblisi in 2005. The pin was removed but a strip of cloth used to disguise the grenade kept it from detonating. He was saved by a scrap of fabric.
I'm afraid for Obama, as I'm sure the Secret Service are as well. There are so many lunatics out there and his election seems to push all of the rage buttons with the bunker dwelling, tax protesting, gun hoarding Militia crowd – black, liberal, foreign-sounding name, Secret Muslim, popular, committed to multinational organizations and diplomacy, and likely to govern in a way that infuriates the US Out of UN Now crowd to no end. I tip my hat to the Secret Service for undertaking the daunting and thankless task of staring down the world's lunatics. Four of the first 43 Presidents have been victims of assassins. That is both horrifying and, when you really stop to think about it, miraculous.