Photo by JeromeG111 on Flickr.
A dangerous man managed to jump the White House fence, run across the lawn, and even get in an unlocked door before being caught on Friday. The Secret Service, with egg on its face, has suggested a few ways to beef up security, including searching anyone even walking on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Many bloggers and just about every Washington Post columnist weighed in on this idea. And unlike with most issues in Washington, they spoke with a unified voice: “No way.”
Unfortunately, this is one area in which residents (and columnists) have virtually no say. Still, we can all hope that the sharp rebukes from the pen convince someone at the White House to think twice before further damaging the public realm in a desperate quest to fix what was clearly a failure inside the existing perimeter and inside the Secret Service itself.
Petula Dvorak points out that the Secret Service screwed up, by not following its own procedures which could have stopped this threat.
The big danger, as Dvorak explains, is that people whose sole job is to think about security naturally will gravitate toward the most restrictive security measures. It’s up to other people with a broader view to say no.
The security gurus think they might want to keep people off the sidewalks around the nation’s most famous residence. Or maybe screen tourists a block away from the White House. They want to Anschluss even more public space to expand The Perimeter around 1600 Pennsylvania, amping up the fear and paranoia that already pervade the heart of our nation.
Given their druthers, of course, the security mafia would close downtown Washington entirely. Tourists could watch a slick “Inside the White House” video clip (in HD) at Reagan National Airport and pose in front of a cardboard cutout of the White House. Same thing for the Capitol and the Supreme Court.
The Capitol and Supreme Court are two other buildings where public access has diminished greatly in recent years, as Phillip Kennicott notes:
The closure of the front doors of the Supreme Court greatly confuses the architectural experience of the building, especially the short axis between the entrance and the courtroom itself — a powerful enactment of our right to appeal unjust laws to the judiciary.
The closure of the West Terrace of the Capitol denies residents and visitors the most accessible and dramatic view of Pierre L’Enfant’s basic plan of the city, its axial relation between the legal and executive branch, the monumental dramatization of the Civil War and reunification, and the passion for civil rights embodied in the Mall.
Dana Milbank explains that one likely cause of the Secret Service’s mistakes was budget cuts which have left the agency understaffed to carry out its vital mission.
Milbank also criticizes White House spokespeople for saying they’re leaving the decision about what to do entirely up to the Secret Service. Decisions about First Amendment rights, public space, and the image our country projects to the world should involve more stakeholders.
But the Secret Service, which proposed closing Pennsylvania Avenue in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing, doesn’t exist to protect constitutional rights; left to its own devices, it would install an iron dome over the White House. Few would object to discreet changes to boost security. But it’s another matter to impose sweeping new restrictions because of the latest in a long line of fence-jumpers. (One earlier this month wore a Pikachu hat and carried a Pokemon doll.)
The Post editorial board agrees:
Surely there is a way to secure the safety of the first family without closing more streets and fencing off more sidewalks. It is not just the convenience of DC residents and visitors that is at stake. It is the character of American government — still meant, the last time we checked, to be of, by and for the people.
[T]he Secret Service always will push for the most restrictive security measures. The District has learned the consequences of this the hard way, as Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street NW have been closed to traffic and once-public spaces have become private parking lots.
Most writers have focused, understandably, on the broader meaning of a closure for democracy. The White House is such a symbol of that democracy and of America’s openness. Still, Pennsylvania Avenue and the other roads around Lafayette Park also serve other mobility purposes despite being closed to motor vehicles.
The 15th Street cycletrack runs along Jackson Place and Pennsylvania, and Penn is a great east-west path for cycling that avoids other congested east-west roads. Checkpoints would essentially shut down these uses as well.
Aaron Wiener gives the local point of view:
District residents have a different kind of concern, one that’s both more pedestrian and more fundamental: It’s annoying when federal government concerns make it harder for them to walk around their town.
Downtown office workers accustomed to strolling to M.E. Swing for a cup of coffee that doesn’t say “Starbucks” or “Peet’s” could find themselves needing to take a lengthy detour or else face lines and bag checks en route. Same with people working west of the White House who commute on the 14th Street bus.
Do these inconveniences compare with a safety threat to the president? Of course not. But they do give Washingtonians who may already feel shut out by the government a sense that their city isn’t truly theirs.
Tim Krepp, a candidate for Delegate to the US House of Representatives in November’s general election, talked about both the national and local issues:
I’m not blind to the security threat. I once was my ship’s Force Protection Officer in the Navy and was responsible for coordinating our physical security when in port. It’s a difficult and demanding job, where success is measured by the absence of failure. I’m sympathetic to those who are responsible for security on a level several orders of magnitude greater that I had to handle.
There are however practical issues for the District at stake here. Pennsylvania Avenue is a major east-west route for commuting cyclists, and a bag check would add a significant delay between downtown and Foggy Bottom … For tour groups, there is a limited amount of motor coach drop off/pick up space, so any bag check or further delay on to what is a simple photo-op stop would add to the already not-insignificant problem of coaches circling around downtown, waiting to pick up their group.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the incumbent delegate, also said in a statement, “It is important to keep Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House and the surrounding area, including Lafayette Park, Pennsylvania Avenue, 17th Street and 15th Street, as accessible to the public as possible.” She also pointed out that she opposed permanently closing Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street to traffic.
Krepp goes on to sum it up nicely:
We have to look at [these proposals] comprehensively, to take stock of what it means to be America’s capital. Do we want to stand with courage and openness or do we give in to fear? If elected, I want to push to do exactly that, to bring our dozens of law enforcement agencies to the table to rethink some of the decisions we’ve made to “secure” the capital. But for now, on the issue of requiring bag checks or otherwise infringing on the public space of Pennsylvania Avenue, I’ll just say this: no.
On this, it seems, we all agree — with the possible exception of the only people who will actually decide.