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Fred Hiatt

Jefferson Fenced In

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, January 10, 2005; Page A17

Fortunately, Thomas Jefferson can't see the ugly concrete barriers and metal fences impinging on his monument; he is facing the other way, across the Tidal Basin.

The barriers were shoved into place about two years ago, closing off the Jefferson Memorial parking lot. Now, as Spencer S. Hsu recently reported in The Post, the National Park Service is proposing to make the closure permanent and to add new barricades around the Lincoln Memorial, too.


The Capitol, in 2001, is among the buildings and monuments fenced off after the Sept. 11 attacks. (Bill O'Leary -- The Washington Post)

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This is in addition to the new walls being installed around the Washington Monument -- from his perch, TJ does stare directly at the ugly construction barricades around that site. It's in addition to the streets turned into private parking lots behind the White House. And the fences around the Capitol, where flak-jacketed police officers wave cars over at mid-road checkpoints. And the chain-link fence that forces pedestrians off the sidewalk alongside the Treasury on 15th Street, and all the other bollards and barriers and security huts around downtown.

Inauguration next week will turn Washington into a fortress, with Pennsylvania Avenue less a true parade ground than a locked-down, swept-clean studio backdrop for a parade. But anyone who walks through the monumental core of what used to be this inviting capital city knows that the fortifications are not just a quadrennial affair.

Some of the people who write to this newspaper complaining about increased security say they believe the war on terrorism is bogus, or the threat of attack exaggerated -- a pretext to help George Bush win reelection, or to distract from the deep failings of U.S. foreign policy, or simply a misreading of the world. I'm not one of those. I believe that al Qaeda terrorists and their allies pose a mortal threat; that most of what's in the USA Patriot Act was needed; that the most nightmarish scenario, a nuclear or biological terrorist attack, could disrupt our society in ways we can scarcely imagine.

More than that, I think we all should feel for the people charged with keeping this city safe. Every day they read threat reports that would have most of us lying awake all night. Every day without an attack is a victory for which they get no credit. And every day that they succeed -- that Sept. 11 recedes further into the past without a repetition -- is a day when the rest of us can gripe more loudly about the inconvenience they are causing us.

It isn't reasonable to expect people whose job is to minimize danger to exercise moderation in their security plans, to accept some increased risk in the name of democratic access. Only Congress, or the president, could do that -- could stand up and say that sealing off our monuments and museums bit by bit is neither inevitable nor acceptable.

No doubt the Park Service would counter with any number of blast studies showing the danger to Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln of a truck bomb of such-and-such force at such-and-such a distance. But a leader could respond: So what? Some people would die, but people would die at whichever next-most-vulnerable site the terrorists might focus on. A 20th-century statue might be destroyed. The terrorists would claim a symbolic victory.

But if it is symbols we are protecting, then what have we lost when older people can no longer stop in at the Jefferson Memorial to read the inscriptions on its curved walls, when every "people's" monument is walled off by deadened streets and armed militia and long lines of tourists waiting to be wanded?

The Jefferson Memorial is no stranger to controversy, much of which rings oddly familiar to modern ears. Many people hated the original plan -- too neoclassical in its echoes of Rome, they said -- and only a stubborn stand by the architect's widow prevented a radical redesign. Scores of environmentalists, though they didn't yet have the name, tried to derail the construction that began in 1939 by chaining themselves to the cherry trees they claimed would be destroyed. (Their forecasts of 700 uprootings proved wildly exaggerated.) When war began, people objected to lavishing money on a monument.

But Franklin Roosevelt wanted the memorial built, and at its dedication in 1943 he said, "Today, in the midst of a great war for freedom, we dedicate a shrine to freedom."

Will it remain such a shrine? While Thomas Jefferson looks majestically north, his compatriot George Mason lounges behind him, in his far less formal monument across the way -- and beyond the cement barriers -- from Jefferson. "I recommend to my sons," Mason tells visitors, in an inscription carved behind him, "never to let . . . the fear of danger or of death deter them from asserting the liberty of their country."

fredhiatt@washpost.com


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