The Cable

Purple tunnel of doom after-action report: “survivors” offer lessons learned

Among the several thousand inauguration ticket holders who got caught in a tunnel haplessly awaiting entrance to yesterday’s historic events, as my colleague Marc Lynch has described, were many foreign-policy hands and volunteers for the Obama campaign — to say nothing of the journalists and commentators who have since taken to Facebook, newspaper and magazine ...

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Among the several thousand inauguration ticket holders who got caught in a tunnel haplessly awaiting entrance to yesterday’s historic events, as my colleague Marc Lynch has described, were many foreign-policy hands and volunteers for the Obama campaign — to say nothing of the journalists and commentators who have since taken to Facebook, newspaper and magazine pages, and blog posts to chronicle the harrowing potential stampede that was averted only by the self-control and restraint of the crowd.

 “I’m gagging over these infuriating self-satisfied quotes from officials about how smoothly everything went yesterday,” writes Mike Tomasky, editor of Guardian America.

“Things most assuredly did not go smoothly,” Tomasky continues. “Thousands and thousands of ticket-holders were turned away at the checkpoints, along with other revelers.

“If things went smoothly on one level, it was not because of the officials and the security people,” Tomasky adds. “It was because of the people themselves — their own recognition of the beauty and solemnity of the occasion prevented them from reacting aggressively and angrily even when they had every right to do so.”

“Given that there was a known, finite number of tickets, I assumed that security would be prepared for a predictable situation,” the New Republic executive editor Peter Scoblic, who chronicled his experience at TNR’s blog, said in an e-mail. “I mean, honestly, inaugural preparations have been in the works for months and there was NO crowd control??? I’m open to other explanations, but this doesn’t seem like a breakdown due to unforeseeable events; it seems like pure incompetence.”

“The moral is that the DC cops and inauguration committee folks screwed up,” said a Washington foreign-policy hand on condition of anonymity who was caught in the tunnel for four hours and, like others, ended up missing the entire inauguration. “They knew exactly how many ticket holders there were. They knew people would show up early in massive numbers. They had months to prepare … And their planning was clearly woefully inadequate and put thousands of people at risk of injury (not to mention, historic disappointment).

“It was kind of like ‘post-war’ planning for Iraq,” the foreign policy hand added. “It kinda happened on paper, but it wasn’t any good.”

A former Obama foreignpolicy volunteer noted on condition of anonymity that the Facebook page on the group’s plight (calling themselves the “survivors of the purple tunnel of doom”) already has 1,000 members. As Lynch noted yesterday, their accounts forced the city police chief to reverse himself after falsely telling the Post that “there’s nobody that didn’t get to see the inauguration today who had a ticket.”

Even a day later, those in the crowd say, city security officials are downplaying the number of people affected, as well as the potential danger posed by the situation.

“The estimate in the Washington Post of 4-5K turned away is most certainly an underestimate,” the Washington foreign policy hand said. “My guess would be closer to 10K (a mile-long line of purple ticket holders were stranded in the tunnel). The really irresponsible part was the fact that there were ZERO cops, volunteers, national guard etc. to direct the crowd, which was stuffed in a tunnel. Anger or small incidents of violence (which could easily have happened since NO ONE was prescreened for weapons before being shunted into the tunnel) could have caused a stampede and produced hundreds of casualties.

“It was dumb luck and a testament to the civility of Obama supporters and the spirit of the day that a riot didn’t break out,” he concluded.

Several Washington vets also noted that their disappointment for themselves pales in comparison to their outrage on behalf of those in the crowd who had traveled from far away some with children at their own expense to see the historic occasion and missed out. “I’m talking about a father who makes $50,000 a year and somehow scored tickets and brought his two children to witness this historic moment, and then got turned away, even though they had tickets!” Tomasky writes. “This is a disgrace and should outrage people.”

“I’m disappointed, but can you imagine flying across the country to attend this with your family and then being turned away, unable to even get to a television in time?” Scoblic e-mailed.

This afternoon, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies sent out an e-mail, apologizing for the situation, saying it was due to the unprecedented crowds, and promising, in typical Washington fashion, to conduct a thorough examination of what happened. The JCCIC “deeply regrets that some ticket holders to the ceremonies were not able to get to their ticketed sections,” the e-mail said. “The JCCIC, U.S. Capitol Police and our federal and local partners will thoroughly examine every aspect of our planning … to provide a foundation of lessons learned to future inaugural planners.”

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