- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

As guests thread their way through a maze of security barriers for Thursday’s presidential inauguration, they can take comfort in knowing that the United States is not alone in turning parts of its capital into a fortress.

In a world plagued by Islamist suicide bombers, nations such as Britain, France and Israel — which once took pride in their leaders living openly among ordinary people — had begun shutting down access even before September 11.

But the pace of new street closures, additional roadblocks and building new barriers to the car and truck bombs favored by Osama bin Laden continues to accelerate.

Within the past year, Israeli officials have reinforced steel barricades protecting the residence of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street and installed turrets in the compound’s wall with cameras protected by steel grates.

At the London intersection of Whitehall and Downing streets — about 100 yards from the prime minister’s Georgian-style town house at No. 10 — work has begun on a new barricade consisting of 4-foot-high hydraulically operated steel posts.

The British system will operate much like the removable bollards blocking Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.

Still, other nations have yet to match the restrictions being imposed on the U.S. capital.

For President Bush’s second inauguration this week, soldiers in full battle gear and toting M-16 rifles equipped with grenade launchers will be on hand to protect a restricted, pedestrian-only zone from George Washington University to Capitol Hill and everything in between.

Understandably, those charged with protecting presidents and prime ministers prefer to err on the side of caution.

But the inaugural security spectacle — perhaps as a stalking horse for everyday security measures in the not-too-distant future — raises other concerns.

For example, is Washington becoming a place off-limits to visitors who lack requisite permits or security clearances?

“It’s taken, frankly, a constant fight to keep the city open,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s delegate to Congress.

Street closings and restrictions on Capitol Hill, or near the White House, she said, “gradually work their way from temporary to permanent.”

Jonathan Turley, a professor of constitutional and national security law at George Washington University, worries that restricting access to the nation’s capital is gradually eroding a key principle of democratic rule that was especially dear to America’s Founding Fathers.

“We created this federal enclave as the symbol of common ground for all citizens. [It] was designed to be open and wide and accessible,” Mr. Turley said.

“Instead, the city has become like a very large military base.”

Business groups are concerned that the intensified security during the inauguration will lead to more security on a daily basis in the city.

“Security gets ramped up and almost never gets ramped down,” said Robert Peck, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

“We understand we’re in a different world. But we’ll be watching after Inauguration Day to make sure we get back to at least the new normality.”

For example, the two-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, initially closed as a temporary measure after the 1995 terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City, has never reopened to cars.

More permanent road closures no doubt would hurt businesses downtown, the business groups say.

“Clearly, if that was the case, we would be up in arms about it,” said Richard Bradley, executive director of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District.

“There’s a city here. It’s a city that has to live like other cities.”

And with each new security measure, Mr. Turley said, little consideration is being given to the impact on ordinary Americans.

Witness, for example, the elderly tourist struggling to navigate the mile-plus detour to get from one side of the White House complex to the other on days when streets are closed because a helicopter is due to take off or land.

Imagine the disappointment of a bus full of schoolchildren who find the Washington Monument off-limits. Then, adding to the disappointment, a 10-foot-high gray wall erected on the far reaches of the monument grounds blocks their view of the magnificent obelisk during a muddy detour to the Lincoln Memorial.

An American soldier back from a tour of duty in Iraq might easily grimace over the maze of ever-increasing walls, fences and concrete barriers that give Washington the feel of downtown Baghdad — albeit without the daily explosions.

Other nations face a similar situation.

“It’s really like the Crusader era,” said Greer Fay Cashmen, who lives just three doors away from the Israeli prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

Each morning, a security guard comes into her garden to poke around with a bayonet-equipped gun.

“He’s looking for bombs,” she said.

The 1930s-era home was built by an Egyptian Jewish banker at the corner of two narrow residential streets, Balfour and Smolenskin, in the leafy Rehavia neighborhood.

It is abutted on one side by a four-story apartment building and on the other by a music school, a proximity that reportedly drove former Prime Minister Golda Meir to distraction when off-key piano playing interrupted her afternoon naps.

Over the past 30 years, the house has been steadily reinforced to the point of becoming a fortress, Ms. Cashmen said.

In the mid ‘70s, during the first term of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the house boasted a low fence that allowed reporters and photographers outside a view into the windows.

With each successive prime minister, the wall grew taller and thicker.

Within the past year, the perimeter of a pedestrian barrier around the prime minister’s house has been widened by a block.

Neighborhood residents need special permits to drive to and from their homes and they often find themselves ordered indoors by blaring outdoor loudspeakers when a motorcade is due to enter or exit.

The streets are guarded by at least three security forces: the regular police, the Shin Bet internal-security service and border police.

The guards conduct outdoor exercises intermittently in a display of toughness and, while exercising, they will close Balfour Street to pedestrians for hours at a time.

In London’s Whitehall district, one could walk along Downing Street as recently as 15 years ago anytime, day or night. At No. 10, the prime minister’s Georgian-style town house, they would find a lone police officer, or “bobby,” guarding the front door.

Things began to change in 1989 when a spate of Irish Republican Army bombings prompted then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to close off Downing Street with massive iron gates.

Today, the 100 yards between the gates and No. 10 are more heavily guarded than ever before, and security becomes stiffer as terrorists grow ever more deadly.

A second set of gates has since been added, and this year work began on the hydraulic metal bollards.

“We are updating the security measures at Downing Street to ensure we have the best equipment. This is part of an ongoing security review,” a Scotland Yard spokesman said.

Visitors are still allowed on Downing Street, but by invitation only — and even they cannot escape rigorous security checks.

At France’s magnificent Elysee Palace, where the president resides, security is all but invisible to passersby on the street.

The palace is perhaps a bit easier to protect because of a more convenient and enticing terrorist target next door — the American Embassy.

While the embassy is set back from the road by layers of movable metal barricades, in front of which are parked about a half-dozen police vehicles, the Elysee Palace remains free from such protective eyesores.

High brick walls with spiked iron rails, threaded thick with foliage, surround the perimeter.

Here and there, a pedestrian might steal a glimpse of the palace, but not without catching a suspicious glare from palace guards stationed along the sidewalks surrounding the building and across the road.

The palace lies in the heart of Paris with its main entrance on the narrow but busy Rue du Faubourg St. Honore, lined with expensive shops and apartment blocks.

The Interior Ministry is a few steps away, on the Place Beauvau.

The palace itself boasts a colorful history.

It was initially built by King Louis XV for his mistress, born Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, but later ennobled as Marquise de Pompadour.

With sentinels manning each side of the palace, the area does not immediately appear high-security.

It boasts no barbed wire or metal barricades to ruin the neighborhood’s moneyed image.

Only the Rue de L’Elysee, the road that runs along the east side of the palace, demonstrates tough security measures: Random vehicles are forced to stop in front of a Day-Glo roadblock for questioning, and the sidewalk is off-limits to pedestrians.

Palace officials refused to issue any comment regarding security of the palace or the president.

For this week’s inauguration in Washington, the city’s downtown streets plus 309 acres of the National Mall will be closed to motorists or restricted.

Those seeking to attend the parade from the U.S. Capitol to the White House will have to pass through several security checkpoints.

Moreover, 6,000 police officers from outside the region will assist in the security effort, and 7,000 military personnel will be on hand.

In November, authorities reopened Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House as a wide, bollard-studded walkway impossible for any vehicle to navigate.

The obstacles can be removed for special occasions; for example, to let the inaugural parade pass by spectators lucky enough to have coveted access to temporary reviewing stands between the White House and Lafayette Park.

Since the September 11 attacks, U.S. Capitol Police have also closed C Street from Washington Avenue SW to First Street SE, South Capitol Street from C Street to Independence Avenue and New Jersey Avenue from C Street to Independence Avenue SE.

Those roads remain closed and barricaded.

Authorities are eyeing other streets for permanent closure, especially those near the Capitol.

George Washington University’s Mr. Turley warned that the trend will get worse unless officials take a more serious and creative look at the tradeoff between public access and security.

Dozens of overlapping agencies, from the Secret Service to the National Park Service, have their own pieces of turf to protect.

“Gradually, they are removing whole areas from passage,” Mr. Turley said. “Each of these decisions is made on an insular basis, but collectively, they are changing the entire character of the city.”

One problem is that there is little willingness to spend the time or money to accommodate ordinary people, he said.

For example, a proposal to build a tunnel under the closed section of Pennsylvania Avenue was dismissed with almost no serious consideration.

“There is no sense of cost versus benefit,” he said. “Saying that security comes first doesn’t mean that the government should not try to make reasonable accommodations to protect security while minimizing disruption.”

Mrs. Norton, the D.C. delegate, called the entire approach to security “a 19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem.”

Jennifer Joan Lee in Paris, Al Webb in London, Joshua Mitnick in Jerusalem and Donna De Marco in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More

Click to Hide