Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Securing a Closed Society

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 3, 2000 --  

When America celebrated the 224th anniversary of its independence a few months ago, it was an especially momentous occasion. This year also marks the 200th anniversary of this capital city. As part of the independence celebration, the National Park Service unleashed a blanket of fireworks to frame a newly restored Washington Monument, fresh from two years of renovations costing $9.4 million.1

Tourists navigate an unsightly series of barricades and fences upon exiting the Washington Monument.
Photo © 2000David G. Young

Sadly, this grand unveiling transformed into a shameful display of the power of the security tyrants who currently dominate the city. Park Service officials left in place a huge ring of 199 Jersey barriers, hundreds of feet of chain link fencing, an electrified vehicular barricade, and a handful of other less-rigid fencing mechanisms designed to control the flow of visitors. These additions have created a hostile environment akin to a secret military installation. Indeed, on the Sunday in which I visited, the heavy security presence included an armed guard with a SWAT patch on his uniform.2

Officials have used a study they commissioned from Booz-Allen and Hamilton to show that the monument is vulnerable to a terrorist bomb technically similar to the one used in Oklahoma City in 1995.3 As a result of the report, barriers may remain forever, thereby destroy the striking contrast that the slender obelisk once displayed against the vast expanse of green on the surrounding National Mall.

Security tyrants did the same thing to Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House after the Oklahoma City bombing. Five years later, Pennsylvania Avenue is an ugly expanse of cracked concrete with fading traffic markings, guard booths, and metal vehicular barricades. Its closure has snarled traffic in downtown Washington and contributed to the image of Washington as the defensively fortified capital of an increasingly closed society.

Pennsylvania Avenue has been fortified since its closing in 1995.
Photo © 2000 David G. Young

Last week, however, a small glimmer of hope appeared in the battle against the security tyrants. The Federal City Council, a heavy-hitting group that includes former presidential candidate Bob Dole and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), as well as local business leaders, has released a plan to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue and return to the area a hint of openness and normalcy. With hope, the next president will follow through and implement this plan after his inauguration in January.

President Clinton -- who closed the street by executive order -- publicly said he has an open mind on the issue. Such open-mindedness matters little, however, as long as he continues to entrust the decision to the Secret Service, which opposes reopening the avenue with a religious ferocity. Their opposition must be taken in context. Though it is for some reason regarded highly, the Secret Service is little more than a glorified group of bodyguards. It is not surprising that they would oppose any measure that would make their job of protecting the president even marginally harder -- regardless of the benefits to the rest of society.

The position of the Park Service regarding the Washington Monument is much harder to explain. Of course, there is some risk to the structure. But everything in life is risky. What purpose does it serve to protect a monument if you destroy its physical beauty and everything it represents in the process? American is unique because it is a uniquely open society. Destroy the openness of its national symbols and institutions, and you destroy the very spirit of its foundation.

Related Web Column:

The Disposable President, July 27, 1998


  1. Washington Post, Washington Monument Won't Open for the 4th, June 9, 2000
  2. SWAT Policeman witnessed at 4 p.m., October 2, 2000.
  3. Ibid, Monuments are Found Vulnerable to Attack, July 2, 2000