As a tour guide, I’m a bit jaded by this quest for security. Every year brings a new closure, a new checkpoint, a little less freedom than the year before. Every change makes tour guides’ jobs a little more difficult — which is fine — and the visitors’ experience at some of the capital’s most popular places a little less meaningful — which is not.
This is not an isolated case of security creep. Last year, without fanfare or media interest, the major Smithsonian museums on the Mall instituted a similar level of full screening. Before then, a guard used to conduct a quick bag check when people entered museums. Now all items have to be removed from pockets, bags are subject to a more thorough search and all visitors must go through metal detectors.
On paper, and to an administrator not dealing with the practical repercussions of such a change, these may seem like small and necessary steps. Those of us who guide people around Washington every day, however, understand that the security has significantly altered the visitors’ experience. The first, and often only, interaction a young student has with a Smithsonian professional is when a security guard starts barking orders at them. Before the new screening rules, a wait of more than five minutes to get into a museum was surprising. Now, waiting for 30 minutes is normal, and an hour-long wait isn’t unheard of [Mad Biologist: Absolutely. These buildings weren’t designed to keep people out]. Those waits take place outside the museums, no matter what the weather is, and water fountains and restrooms are all on the other side of security. So for the past year, instead of bubbling with excitement over seeing the first ladies’ dresses and the Star Spangled Banner, my students have returned from museums with tales of how bad the security process was….
None of that will do anything to make people safer. The cemetery [Arlington Cemetery] is nearly a square mile, with plenty of hiding spaces, and only a three-foot-high wall protects it for much of the perimeter. Concentrating tourists in an unprotected and dense waiting area easily accessible by unscreened vehicles could actually make them a better target for would-be terrorists than visitors are now.
But let’s say this does make us more secure. And let’s say the Army manages to smoothly implement these enhanced measures with a minimum of fuss and get people into the cemetery quickly for a contemplative, respectful visit. It would still be wrong.
…if we say that only people who have been screened can walk up that hill to bear witness, that there is a presumption that until you’ve been searched, you’re too dangerous to be allowed near these symbols — we send a different kind of message. We can hide behind euphemisms such as “enhanced security,” but visitors, from my busload of eighth-graders all the way up to the last World War II vets visiting their long-dead comrades, won’t find their experience enhanced. They will see a country where the forms and symbols of security have replaced the forms and symbols of freedom and openness….
Now, it’s a constant litany of security preparations. Belts come off at this one, no bags at that one, and so on. It creeps up little by little, until you realize that your job is basically to escort kids through security checkpoints. By the third day of a class trip to Washington, it has become a weary game for all of us. It’s grinding, and their take away from their visit is all too often a sense that their capital is unsafe, to be protected endlessly by armed guards….
This [Arlington Cemetery] is the final resting place of those who didn’t take the safe route, who said there was something more important than personal security. To take away freedom and openness strips away that sacrifice and makes those words hollow, punch lines in a national mythology that’s increasingly difficult to recite with a straight face.
We need to stand up and say, yes, there is a risk. Yes, a terrorist could choose this place to write their warped message in blood. But I can choose to be afraid, or I can choose to go about my life…
There is a point where a quest for security compromises our bedrock principles.
This isn’t the Nanny State, it’s the Ninny State.
On a practical level, there’s always an unsecured perimeter, no matter how far back you push it. You don’t have to bomb the ‘target’, you can just kill the people waiting in line.
The whole problem arises because no one ever pushes back on the security guys. After all, there’s always one more thing that could be done to further ‘enhance security.’ Never mind that securing an area often degrades or negates the entire purpose of the area.
Worse, as is often the case, our internal security forces have decided unilaterally that these additional encroachments on our liberty and dignity are worthwhile. No one ever asked us. Admittedly, we D.C. residents are used to taxation without representation, but, surely, the proud people of the heartland, erstwhile defenders of freedom that they are, must be upset about this?
You know, that whole freedom of assembly thing? Then again, maybe they just don’t have to experience this sort of idiocy on a daily basis. And there doesn’t seem to be even a glimmer of an end to this, as I noted three years ago:
Does anyone remember when we had this debate about the “new normal”? Was it ever put to a vote or public examination by our elected officials? (If so, it certainly wasn’t reported). Maybe most of my fellow citizens of the Commonwealth and the City of Boston want this stuff. But increasing surveillance and security should not be done by unreviewed executive fiat, especially when it conflicts with our basic constitutional freedoms (i.e., freedom of assembly). I’ll posit that the MA State Police is well-intentioned, but they don’t get to erect barriers (literally and figuratively) unilaterally to our freedom of assembly (and expression). We must have a say in the “new normal”, because I have no idea when this new normal ends. Do we require five years without a bombing? Fifty? One? (In reality, it will probably cease once it gets too damn expensive).
While I’m not particularly optimistic about the public’s ability to overcome its fear (though maybe the slow passing of Generation Lead will help), this is something that needs to be decided by the people, not security agencies.