Monday, February 4, 2008

Monumental Protection

Washington's monumental core--the area that includes the Mall, White House, Capitol, Smithsonian and other stately buildings--is one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring urban landscapes in America, if not the world. And rightly so: it was designed that way, after all. When Pierre L'Enfant drew up his initial plan for the City of Washington, he envisioned a "grand avenue" emanating from the Capitol, running between the President's house and the Potomac, and flanked on each side by grand monuments, memorials and grand buildings befitting the capital city of what L'Enfant believed at the time to be a "young empire".

It took over a century for reality to match L'Enfant's original artistic vision, but encouragement from President Theodore Roosevelt, spurred in large part from the plan put forth by Michigan Senator Jamse MacMillan, led to a focus on the beautification of the city of Washington--dubbed the "City Beautiful" project. It is largely due to the work of politicians, District government and urban architects and planners from this time that central Washington is what it is today.

Why the D.C. history lesson, you ask? Well, because anyone who has done any strolling around DC's monumental core recently knows that homeland security concerns have done a fairly decent job in desecrating the grounds, views, and open feel of the iconic structures that so many of us love. Armed guards peer down menacingly from the permanently(?) closed west portico of the Capitol building at unsuspecting visitors. Ugly concrete and metal security bollards line the streets and walkways in front of most governmental structures. Overpowering flourescent floodlights blind the eys of motorists driving down Independence and Constitution avenues. Cracked and crumbling jersey barriers lie recklessly strewn around gorgeous and inspiring monuments to Lincoln and Jefferson (who most certainly would be appalled at the current state of his memorial's grounds--that is, if he wouldn't also most certainly be appalled at the existence of a memorial to himself, but that's another topic). Parking lots for the memorials have been permanently closed, and everywhere armed Capitol and Park Police officers stand guard, carefully scrutinizing the visitors and strollers who meander by. The idea that the monuments and memorials were meant to portray an open and transparent government--however illusory--can no longer be maintained, as the image now portrayed is one of suspicion and fear. And to what end?

This morning, the Post ran an article about a forthcoming report that is highly critical of the U.S. Park Police and their supposed inability to "adequately" protect our city's parks and monuments. Officers are taken to task in the report for perceived deficiencies in security, including--among other transgressions--allowing a briefcase to rest against the base of the Washington Monument for five minutes, before its neglectful owner returned to retrieve it.

No one wants to see our beloved memorials destroyed by an act of terrorism, or defaced by vandals or rogue protesters. Clearly, a certain level of security and vigilance is required. But the current state of security concerns on and around the Mall speak not of reasonable levels of security and vigilance--rather, it speaks of a government that has gone to absurd lengths to protect iconic structures that simply don't need that much protection to begin with.

Let's consider a worst-case scenario: someone with a backpack laden with explosives wanders up to the Lincoln Memorial and detonates the bag. A handful of people are killed, a number of others are wounded, and the Memorial is badly damaged. A tragedy, to be sure. But, aside from the (likely) minimal loss of life that such an attack would cause, what irreperable harm has taken place? There is a (very) questionable presumption that a terrorist cell would even target for destruction something that would cause such minimal devastation and disruption in day-to-day life; and even if they did, the harm that would follow such an attack would be negligible compared with a similar attack perpetrated in a crowded shopping mall, sporting event, concert, or outdoor celebration.

In other words, the lengths to which the goverment has extended itself in order to protect the monuments of DC (and the nation) are completely disproportionate to the amount of actual damage that such an attack could actually incur. One might argue that the psychological damage that could be caused by an attack on one of our nation's most hallowed monuments would be substantial. Perhaps. But, I would argue, the amount of damage done to the psyches of the tourists who visit the city and the citizens who live here to consistently see signs of a city and government living under siege and in fear is far greater.

I say: ditch the bollards, dump the jersey barriers, and have the guards stand down. The free and open access to our nation's memorials, monuments and government buildings was--for a long time--the final remaining vestige of a truly free and open government. It's time for the government to step back, exhale deeply, and restore it.


IMGoph said...

thank you! thank you! thank you!

i could rant on and on for hours about how i feel about the securitocracy that has sprung up after the oklahoma city bombings, and has been exacerbated after 9/11/01, but you've hit the high points.

i think one thing that needs to be said is this:

you're right, the guards, bollards, jersey barriers, etc., completely destroy the image of an open society that we're supposed to have. they are jarring emotionally, physically, and spiritually (in the purest sense of the word).

i think we need to remember that the memorials exist as memorials to an idea, and are not memorials to the memorials themselves. if the washington monument fell down tomorrow, if the lincoln memorial was destroyed today, it wouldn't matter. in the long run, it wouldn't matter. we would still have the ideas that they represent. that can't be taken away from us. memorials and monuments are just copper, concrete, mortar, brick, glass, steel, and stone.

they can be rebuilt.

the ideas they represent, if purged from our nation's psyche and our reason for being, cannot. if we lose the ideas and ideals of the freedom that makes us us, then all the protected stone in the world means nothing.

paraphrasing ronald reagan (which is surprising, but appropriate), "mr. bush, tear down these walls!"

Mr. 14th & You said...

Thanks for the addendum, imgoph. You addressed some points that, looking back, I didn't exactly hammer home enough. My point--which you seemed to gather--was indeed that these memorials are simply made out of materials. They're beautiful, they're inspiring--but ultimately they're structures that can be rebuilt. The loss we have experienced as this city (and country) has gone security-crazy is far more immense and substantial than the destructionof any monument.