- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 7, 2004

“At the rate federal authorities are walling off U.S. buildings and grounds in the nation’s capital, downtown Washington could become a partitioned government enclave in only a few years.”

So begins an Aug. 4 editorial in The Washington Post.

The latest terror warnings have increased security at federal buildings in Washington and around the country and at other financial and governmental entities. This is a far cry and another country away from my mother’s Washington. Then, she would walk from school to meet her mother visiting Grace Coolidge at a 1920s White House where the guard would recognize her and wave her in. How ancient such a concept seems today in fortress America.

My wife recalls walking home from an event on Pennsylvania Avenue and getting an ice cream cone without fear from foreign or domestic predators. She recalls, as I do, only two Capitol police officers outside the House and Senate wings of the Capitol. Their primary duties seemed to be giving directions and information to tourists.

Then, metal detectors were devices taken to the beach to find loose change dropped by sunbathers. It was an America captured in black and white on television, an America we are unlikely to experience again for several lifetimes, if ever.

This raises the questions of whether we can hope to make ourselves “safe” — if by that we mean no more terror attacks — and if it is worth the price of transforming ourselves into an armed fortress. Changing America is a primary objective of the terrorists. If we change ourselves, have they won?

There are now more than a dozen “security checkpoints” around the U.S. Capitol, according to federal officials. Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security authorities confirm additional precautions in front of the Treasury Building (next to the White House) have been under discussion since the Bush administration’s announcement of a heightened threat to financial institutions in Washington, New York City and New Jersey. Barriers are going up around the Washington Monument, and traffic prohibitions in front of the White House predate September 11, 2001.

Washington and certain other cities begin to resemble occupied territories. Perhaps not since the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. has there been such a visible presence of armed soldiers on our cities’ streets.

But even then, as parts of Washington burned, there was not today’s depth of fear. During the riots, people knew the shootings and fires were confined to certain neighborhoods. But this terror threat is anywhere and everywhere.

Are all bases covered with an expensive and extensive defense of ourselves? One need only consult Tom Clancy’s latest novel, “The Teeth of the Tiger,” for a terrorist plot that cannot be defended against. Terrorists smuggled over the Mexican border lay siege to American shopping malls in several smaller cities and towns. How could we possibly prevent such a scenario without declaring martial law?

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said: “We are fighting to preserve both security and freedom. We’re not going to accept the closing of the city.” The new restrictions were imposed by Congress without consulting D.C. leaders, according to Mrs. Norton. Mayor Anthony Williams told a news conference, “When in doubt, preserve freedom.” That may be increasingly difficult, depending on one’s definitions of “security” and “freedom.”

Israelis have long lived with this tension between terror and freedom. They seem resigned to it, and we probably will have to resign ourselves as well. It will cost a lot of money and produce much inconvenience and frustration. But what is the alternative? There is none, save the defeat of the fanatics. Unfortunately, we may never know if we have succeeded in that quest.

As we ratchet up our defenses, we, however, must maintain a balance between our safety and our freedoms. We would do well to recall Benjamin Franklin’s warning: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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