- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004

Visitors arriving in the nation’s capital by interstate highway are greeted by large signs instructing them: “Report any suspicious activity.” Then there is an 800 number for them to snitch on any nefarious-seeming fellow citizens.

Whatever happened to “Welcome to Washington”?

“Security” happened, that’s what.

Thirty-five years ago, a close British friend arrived for his first visit to the United States, and that night I took him to the U.S. Capitol, luminously white and shining on a hill. We parked on the east side and walked around to the terraces and balconies overlooking the city and its illuminated monuments to the west.

As I have thought many times since, “This is truly a beautiful city.” My friend agreed. And the Capitol police officer on duty, who seemed glad of the company, remarked that he never got tired of the view.

Try doing that now.

The Capitol is off-limits to the casual visitor. The grounds are surrounded by elaborate security barriers. And even just driving by on Independence and Constitution avenues — the thoroughfares defining the Mall — requires stops at police roadblocks. There are 14 around the Capitol grounds, and guards with automatic weapons patrol the subway stop.

Congress is building a huge, bunker-like visitors center under the Capitol plaza so even if tourists can’t see the inside of the “people’s house,” they can go to the center and look at pictures of it. The White House does this now.

Indeed, the security perimeter around the White House has been extended, and officials won’t let trucks park on nearby streets, meaning local stores and restaurants have to receive their supplies by handcarts.

The pedestrian walkway between the Treasury Department and the White House was a pleasant shortcut from Lafayette Square (now surrounded by bollards, the upscale version of a Jersey barrier) to the Ellipse for visitors and locals alike. Now the walkway has been sealed off and the shortcut, along with its fountains and greenery, is doubtless lost to the general public forever.

The new $10 bill has a handsome engraving of the Treasury Building. Missing is the large, ugly security fence you would peer through to get that view. And the last little stub of Pennsylvania Avenue left open because there are two commercial banks — including the one on the old $10 bill — on the corner? That’s closed, too.

When the threat level went to orange, the police closed off large areas around the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, just a few blocks from the White House. It made the entire area sort of an urban black hole.

These closures are generally done without regard to the city of Washington, which frequently isn’t informed of them.

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams complained, “You can’t continue to close streets without doing death to commerce in this city — to tourism in this city, to the tax base in this city.”

Washingtonians’ suspicions of Washingtonians are aroused that parking places don’t disappear when streets are closed. Instead, they become heavily guarded VIP-permit parking places. Security, you know.

Slowly, Washingtonians begin to wake up to the fact large parts of the city are being taken from them. It’s like the Green Zone — the large, heavily fortified U.S. enclave in Baghdad — and we’re the Iraqis.

Government bureaucracies don’t willingly give up what they’ve wrung from the public. It wasn’t until the early 1970s — and a direct order from the president — that the government demolished the last of the “temporary” War Department office buildings erected on the Mall in World Wars I and II.

Washington remains a beautiful city. Its monuments seen from a distance at night are still breathtaking. Of course, that’s the only way you can see many of them now — from a distance.

One day the city will quit being a security theme park and return to its old, accommodating self, and the large signs greeting visitors on interstates can return to a more typical message: “Expect delays.”

Dale McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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