Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Lessons From a Dead President

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 13, 2010 --  

Poland's recovery from the death of its president proves that all leaders are replaceable. American security officials should take note.

Three days after the death of Poland's president and dozens of high ranking officials in a plane crash, a funny thing happened: Poland went back to business. The stock market reopened and closed the day hardly changed. Traffic filled the streets, and people returned to work after the weekend. The acting president -- the former parliament speaker who was constitutionally next in line for the presidency -- announced the completion of all temporary appointments needed to replace those who died in the crash.1

This seemingly amazing resilience is in stark contrast to both global and Polish domestic rhetoric about the event. Former President Lech Walesa called the incident a misfortune "second after Katyn,"2 referring to the World War II massacre of 20,000 high ranking military and government leaders by the Soviet Union, intended to chop the head off of the nation. Ironically, it was the commemoration of this very event that was the destination of the officials when they died in the crash last week.

While emotions are high as a result of these deaths, the fact that daily life (and government) in Poland continues to move forward is an important reminder of a major blessing of the developed world: It is the institutions of government, not the government officials themselves, that really matter. Given stable, well-functioning institutions, absolutely everyone is replaceable.

This reminder is sorely needed here on the other side of the Atlantic, where thousands of world leaders have gathered for President Obama's nuclear summit. Here, the city center has been transformed into an armed encampment to protect visiting politicians, diplomats and other officials at all costs. 12-foot high steel barriers line the streets near the site of the meeting -- the Washington Convention Center -- and military vehicles block intersections leading to the convoy route from the White House.

In the haste to protect the very important visiting dignitaries, security forces crushed a passing bicyclist on Monday, leaving the dead rider covered in a white sheet on the side of New York Avenue, her bent wheel sticking into the air next to the 5-ton military truck that killed her.3,4
Safety first. But whose?

Yet this senseless loss of life hardly inconvenienced the visiting leaders. Motorcades of black sport utility vehicles carrying VIPs simply switched to the left side of the boulevard, speeding by the dead body with sirens blaring. These politicians enjoyed safety from molestation by the people -- people who were killed, if necessary, to ensure their protection.

While this situation is extreme in its impact on a single life, the willingness of America's security industrial complex to elevate the safety of politicians over the interests of the people is all too typical. Washingtonians are used to parts of the city being locked down to protect important people, with absolutely no concern for the public interest.

A more typical example happened two weeks ago, while tens of thousands of visitors gathered near Washington's National Mall for the city's Cherry Blossom Festival. During a beautiful afternoon, when the Mall was already clogged with visitors on foot and on the roadways, the Secret Service closed 15th Street, which runs from the White House through the middle of the cherry groves, so the President's motorcade could drive by unimpeded. The impact on the streets of the city was felt for miles, and took hours to recover.

These extreme and heavy-handed efforts to secure the safety of politicians at the expense of the people they are supposed to serve are misguided. They rest on the incorrect assumption that leaders must be protected at all costs. As Monday's killing of a cyclist proves, some costs are simply too high. And as citizens of Poland are learning, all leaders are ultimately replaceable.

Poland's late president Lech Kaczynski was an impressive man, and not the type to give in to the whims of overbearing security officials. He joined dozens of other important Poles in flying on a single ageing Russian-built plane, despite the suggestion of many in Poland who said it should have been replaced long ago.5

While Kaczynski and his colleagues can be criticized for taking to great of a risk with their lives, at least it was their own lives they were risking. The same cannot be said of the leaders who raced by the body of an unfortunate cyclist on the streets of Washington on Monday evening.


1. Washington Post, Poland's Acting President Reassures Nation in Mourning, April 12, 2010

2. Warsaw Business Journal, Former Presidents Comment on Tragedy, April 10, 2010

3. WTOP News, Bicyclist Killed in Downtown DC Accident, April 12, 2010

4. Eyewitness Account by Author of the Scene after the Bicyclist's Death.

5. Reuters, Polish Plane Crash Highlights 'Lamentable' Fleet, April 10, 2010

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The Disposable President, July 28, 1998