Fortress Washington

August 06, 2004

AMERICA'S FREE and open society, which has long been the envy of the world, is being stolen from us piece by piece in return for the often false promise of greater security.

The latest and most appalling example is the absurd walling off of the nation's capital in response to last weekend's heightened terror alert.

Federal officials have offered since then a series of conflicting rationales for sounding that alert. But none of them related to a threat against the U.S. Capitol or the Treasury Building. Yet Capitol Police have seized the excuse to create what amounts to a moat of 14 vehicle checkpoints around the congressional campus, blocking traffic on two major Washington arteries that bear 33,000 trips a day. Meanwhile, Secret Service agents blocked the 15th Street sidewalk next to the Treasury Building, and are seeking to ban trucks from that thoroughfare.

City officials and Washington residents -- still unhappy that the White House portion of Pennsylvania Avenue was arbitrarily shut off after the Oklahoma City bombing a decade ago -- protest that their lives and commerce are being thoughtlessly disrupted by police agencies that take advantage of a moment of fear to make their own jobs easier.

Free movement by drivers or pedestrians around the symbols of our democracy is risky, haphazard and difficult to control. But that, of course, is why many of us love this country. We're too independent and ornery to tolerate a police state.

Congressional leaders, now off vacationing or campaigning for re-election, should immediately order the federal police to stand down. This level of security can't be maintained unless the capital city is to be made completely inaccessible to the folks who pay the bills.

And even if that were the choice, where does it end? Shopping mails are also said to be potential targets. Do we put security checkpoints around them? Install metal detectors at all movie theaters? Require identification of anyone entering a concert hall or an arena? Or just walking down a city street?

What a pathetic postscript for this once-cocky nation: so fearful we surrender without a fight.

The larger point is that we haven't had a national discussion about how we want to live in the post-9/11 world. Security measures are simply imposed by politicians and police who don't want to be blamed if anything goes wrong. Americans accept them because they've been frightened out of their wits.

Part of the blame goes to Tom Ridge, the ineffectual homeland security secretary, whose silly and costly multicolored alert system does more harm than good and should have been scrapped long ago.

But President Bush, Democratic challenger John Kerry and their respective allies also bear responsibility for turning the war against terrorism into a political game of one-upmanship.

Instead of trying to outdo one another in claims of who can better protect the homeland, they ought to be debating how to most effectively reduce the risk without giving up the freedom of movement, access and opportunity we are supposedly fighting for.

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