The Silence in Washington Today

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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I pedaled my bike to work this morning through the largest security operation ever mobilized for a single person. Pope Francis’s visit is a National Special Security Event, a designation otherwise reserved for summits held by the UN, NATO, the WTO, the IMF, presidential inaugurations and funerals, State of the Union addresses, Olympic games, and Super Bowl XXXVI. Even by those standards, the pope’s five-day tour of Washington, New York, and Philadelphia has mobilized coordination, counterterrorism, crowd management, crisis response, and traffic control (land, sea, and air) on a scale that is, in U.S. history, unexampled.

I read the warnings last week, imagining hordes, sirens, riot gear, choppers whapping overhead. Instead it was like the morning after snowfall.

A few police leaned against their cars, red and blue lights strobing, muted. My ride is usually high-strung, with drivers yelling at me, and me yelling at crosswalkers, white-knuckled, sweating through my shirt. But west of the Capitol there was scarcely a car on the road. Traffic lights blinked uselessly. I let my bike swerve between the lanes.

The silence was buttery. My commute took on unexpected significance and intensity. I countenanced the inaudible. The matrix of signals broadcast from radios, microphones, and video cameras, language beneath language, zipping through the air. And (go with me) something cosmic, too. Silence as contrast to what we are.

The business of Washington is so blaring. The motorcades and fanfare, everything deliberated and repeated by everyone all the time. Does silence require a visit from the Pope? Perhaps at some level on guard against romanticizing the Holy Father, I recalled reading that outside Independence Hall, the founders had the entire street covered with earth so they could hear themselves think.