- The Washington Times - Monday, April 5, 2004

Forget “zero risk.” It is a standard “we can never meet,” D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said some time ago about imprisoning the nation’s capital.

Her warning words came to mind this week as frightening news about further erosions to America’s freedom were proposed on Capitol Hill.

Enter Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer, whose distaste of First Amendment freedoms is a matter of public record.

As deputy chief of the Metropolitan Police Department, he was of the “I-wish-we-could-lock-them-up-before-they-do-something” pre-emptive strike stance, particularly toward youthful antiglobalization demonstrators. And, we see how his repressive agenda came back to haunt the District’s department.

Moving up to the Big House, now Chief Gainer wants to erect a fence around the U.S. Capitol complex to keep the people off their own public palace grounds.

Mind you, the U.S. Capitol grounds and surrounding House and Senate office buildings already resemble the foreign fortresses of a fascist regime with concrete barriers, metal detectors, security cameras and guarded checkpoints. Any visitor or violator could be intimidated easily and deterred by the Berlin Wall feel of the place that is supposed to be the symbol of American democracy.

Nothing can make this proposed edifice “aesthetically pleasing,” as Chief Gainer suggests.

However, it is not merely a matter of aesthetics; it’s a matter of economics and emotions. The American psyche cannot handle the “under siege” symbolism or the reality of being secured from another of its homeland monuments.

Ken Davis, a Maryland man who wrestled a deranged gunman in front of the White House in October 1994, once said it best with regard to the permanent closure of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House: “I hate [Pennsylvania Avenue] being closed because I like the freedom of having it open. I never wanted to be a prisoner in my own house. If I have to be a prisoner in my own house ,then I can’t live life to the fullest.”

It’s ironic that just as federal and local officials announced the reopening of the Statue of Liberty for the summer tourist season, which provides a welcome breather, Chief Gainer announced at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee budget hearing last week his proposal to construct an even bigger and unwelcome bunker around the nation’s legislature.

Reportedly, the wrought-iron fence, costing anywhere between $15 million and $50 million, will not only make the area safer but it will save Chief Gainer’s agency a few bucks because he won’t need so many officers to patrol the perimeters.

We do know by now that fail-safe security measures are nonexistent.

After all, where is anyone totally safe? Yes, we must take precautions, but we cannot gate ourselves within self-imposed prisons if our communities, our children or our country are to continue to flourish and grow stronger.

Yet Washingtonians and the millions of Americans who visit the nation’s capital each year are severely inconvenienced for the sake of symbolic security.

The 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue NW, which was closed to vehicular traffic in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings, may as well be a barren Siberian outpost.

The cherry blossoms at the footprint of the Washington Monument can no longer be viewed by motorists because of the boring, monstrous fence blocking their view.

Don’t even try to get anywhere near the entrances to the State Department, the Pentagon or the vice president’s home. There is even a proposal to close sections of Rock Creek Park, in part, for some vague homeland security excuse. Make no mistake, the fencing and fortressing of the District has been costly to the tourism trade upon which regional governments depend.

Congress has allocated millions to build an underground visitors center through which all visitors will have to be screened in order to enter the Capitol. Another is proposed for the Washington Monument.

Erecting additional barriers to American freedom is a disservice to taxpaying citizens to keep them at bay.

It is also a dishonor to the two Capitol Hill police officers, Jacob J. Chestnut and John M. Gibson, who were gunned down by a madman in July 1998. These brave men died providing open access to the public’s house to watch the public’s business being conducted in public.

It will be a sad statement indeed if we allow the total erosion of the country’s trademark openness. To move about and have free access to our elected representatives is what sets a democratic society apart — not a fearful fence.

We give up more than our freedom when we allow ourselves to be physically and psychologically imprisoned. We give up our courageous history as well as our homespun chutzpah by caving in to terrorist threats in this overly cautious manner.

Is this an America that is the land of the free and home of the brave, or an America that is the land of the scared and home of the sequestered? Forget the democracy-deterrent “zero risk” fences.

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