Fortress Maryland under construction

September 10, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

SOON, THEY MAY be calling Maryland's historic State House "Fortress America."

Thanks to the inflated egos of some of our elected lawmakers, there's a move afoot to turn this lovely, Georgian-style building in Annapolis into a high-security zone more like a prison than a working seat of democracy.

Lock all the doors and windows to repel unwanted outsiders. Install sensitive metal detectors at the only access point. Seal off other entry passages.

All that's missing will be a sandbagged observation nest in the State House's wooden dome and expert marksmen patrolling surrounding rooftops. Then we'll know who's in charge of this state. Only the form of government will be in doubt.

We go through these security scares every few decades. Usually, common sense prevails and elected officials remember that in an open society you can't set up barricades and check points.

What triggered this security alert was the 1998 shooting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. But there's a big difference in people's attitudes between a state legislature and the Congress.

At least, some folks can tell you who their congressman is; very few can name their state senator, much less their state delegates. And if you can't even name these elected officials, why would anyone drive all the way to Annapolis, search for a difficult-to-find parking space, walk to the State House and then barge into the building with malevolent intent?

Is there really a reason to give top-security protection to Del. Carmen Amedori or Del. Robert A. Zirkin? Should we really shelter Sen. C. Robert Hooper or Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus from their own constituents?

And should we turn all state government buildings into heavily guarded fortresses?

Of course not. Yet that's what legislative leaders seem intent on doing. They've budgeted $2 million that they're just itching to spend.

They do it at courthouses, airports, even schools. Why not in Maryland's legislative buildings?

Because it would be an insult to this state's people. Sure, there has been violence in public buildings over the years. There was even a fatal shooting at Baltimore's temporary City Hall in 1976.

Yet the intended target that day, William Donald Schaefer, never called out the National Guard to protect him when he worked in the State House as governor.

Our governors are far more likely to be targets of violent citizen anger than is any Maryland legislator. Still, state police protection for the chief executive remains low-key, but effective.

Until Gov. Spiro T. Agnew was nominated as vice president by Richard Nixon in 1968, our governors had little, if any, police guard. But the Maryland State Police learned about protective measures from the Secret Service and adopted many of these practices. They're still in effect today.

Yet our governor isn't ringed by security. Plainclothes officers politely bar entry to the wing where the governor works, unless you can show identification or have an appointment. The doors to the governor's suite are controlled by an electronic switch.

But most of the time, the governor - be it Mr. Schaefer, Harry Hughes or Parris Glendening - is out and about, mingling with people.

In a democracy, that's the way it is supposed to work.

Now, 188 state lawmakers want their own security blanket? The State House is littered with police presence during General Assembly sessions. Police stand attentively at all the chamber doors. They are stationed at balcony doors. They handle crowd control in committee rooms.

But there's been no massive threat to legislators' safety. No reason to make visitors fearful when they try to attend a hearing or visit a delegate's office.

The idea should be to make our elected leaders as accessible as possible. That's the way it is right now in the State House complex. Thousands of folks wandering the hallways, the tunnels connecting buildings, the mall, the offices and the committee hearing rooms.

Why put a stop to democracy in action unless there is a clear and present danger?

Besides, if 188 legislators need tight police guard while in Annapolis, don't they also require heightened protection for their district offices? What about 24/7 protection for them and their families?

This can become ludicrous. Paranoia is setting in. Or else, too many top lawmakers have an oversized impression of their importance.

During a legislative session, people from all over the state gather; they protest; they support issues; they try to influence their representatives; they witness bills being debated, amendment, defeated and laws being enacted.

It is all on display, easily available to everyone to observe.

Maryland is lucky to have such an open State House, where democracy flourishes. It would be a tragic mistake to circle the wagons and set up the metal detectors.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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