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Defense / ANALYSIS

Walled-Off Washington

How free can a society be when its elected officials are kept further and further away from those they represent?

Tourists peer through a fence outside the White House shortly after the 2000 election.(Getty Images)

photo of Yochi J. Dreazen
January 10, 2011

Updated at 3:07 p.m. on January 10.

It’s hard to remember, but Washington wasn’t always a city of walls.

Thomas Jefferson held a public reception at the White House after his second inaugural, and citizens were able to freely wander through the building to personally ask presidents like Abraham Lincoln for jobs and other favors. Harry Truman took long walks around Washington each morning protected by just a handful of Secret Service agents. Capitol Hill had no roadblocks or barricades, and cars and trucks passed directly in front of the White House as they drove down Pennsylvania Avenue, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares.

 

Today, those seem like postcards from a forgotten era. Security concerns have transformed Washington, taking a city envisioned as the physical embodiment of the openness of American democracy and turning it into a garrison town that is increasingly inaccessible to the general public. To take one example, tourists visiting Capitol Hill start their trips by passing through a gauntlet of metal detectors and other screening measures in a $621 million visitors center constructed specifically to better protect what is already one of the most heavily guarded areas of the city.

The security creep that's a hallmark of life in today’s Washington has an obvious cause: The nation faces real and continuing threats from both professional terror groups like al-Qaida and homegrown -- and often mentally unbalanced -- solo assailants like Russell Eugene Weston Jr., who killed a pair of Capitol police officers in 1998. Pennsylvania Avenue was closed off in 1995 after Timothy McVeigh used a truck bomb to demolish a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. The September 11 terrorist attacks sparked an even larger series of changes, with security personnel building new screening facilities and roadblocks outside buildings ranging from the Washington Monument to the World Bank.

And there are almost certainly more changes yet to come. The attempted assassination of Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona last weekend is already spurring talk about giving individual lawmakers security details or making their public meetings and town halls more difficult to get into, all in the name of security.

But Washington’s decades-long habit of reacting to horrific attacks by installing costly new security measures raises a difficult question about the future of American democracy: How free can a society be when its elected officials are kept further and further away from those they represent? 

Security Over the Years

Security Over the Years Security Over the Years Security Over the Years Security Over the Years Security Over the Years Security Over the Years

“The unfortunate reality is that Washington is far more constrained and walled off than it used to be,” said congressional scholar Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, who remembers driving out-of-town guests along Pennsylvania Avenue at night. “We’re getting to be more like countries which have never had a tradition of openness, and that’s fundamental and depressing change.”

Ornstein said the growing distance between elected officials and their constituents adds to the anger and discomfort many Americans feel about the political system.

“There used to be a way of having a more direct link to your representative, and that’s basically gone now,” he said.

Some politicians appear to prefer a bit of distance. Although only eight lawmakers have full-time security details, virtually all governors and big-city mayors have detachments of bodyguards who shadow them at public events and escort them in and out of meetings. Political leaders who have security details quickly discover that they are an effective way of limiting their exposure to the media and preventing journalists from getting close enough to freely question them.

In the short term, law enforcement officials expect the U.S. Capitol Police -- which lacks the manpower or financial resources to provide security details for 535 lawmakers -- to ask local law enforcement officials to send uniformed personnel to town hall meetings and other public events as a deterrent to future attacks.

Bill Pickle, a former Senate sergeant at arms who oversaw the Capitol Police for several years, said both lawmakers and the general public need to accept that lone-gunman attacks are almost impossible to prevent. That, he said, means the onus is on the government -- and the people it represents -- to avoid responding to the Giffords attack by making it even harder for citizens to interact with their elected leaders.

“We have a tendency to overreact as a country to these kinds of attacks,” Pickle said. “Members of Congress need to realize that when they take on these kinds of positions, they take on this kind of risk. There’s no such thing as perfect safety.”

Sara Sorcher contributed contributed to this article.

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