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Iconic obelisk presents a monumental security issue

The iconic obelisk in the nation's capital presents a security issue; currently, the method of screening individuals who want inside the Washington Monument involves an unsightly temporary security hut. The National Park Service is offering five ideas for a permanent replacement facility that are open for public comment.

Line says the Park Service will use studies done in 2003 and, if necessary, new studies to be sure that exposing the monument's foundations and creating a new entrance won't destabilize the structure.

"The Washington Monument has been where it is for quite a number of years, and I'm not aware of any movement or instability," he says.

Danger and public spaces

The problem with all of the Park Service proposals, however, isn't just their acceptance of security mania - that's the default thinking everywhere in Washington - but rather the importance they place on keeping access to the monument's interior elevator and viewing platform. A century ago, a view of the world from 555 feet was a rare thing, and part of the monument's power was its height and the bird's-eye view that offered. Today, the important thing about the Washington Monument is its simple, unadorned and queer simplicity. Skyscrapers are a dime a dozen, but the monument's aesthetic impact as a pure sculptural object is priceless. Its small elevator also means that huge and costly changes are being proposed to accommodate a relatively small number of people. Perhaps this is the one monument that should be closed to the public.

Closing the interior of the monument, the construction of which was suspended during the Civil War, would remind the public of the effect that fears engendered by the current war on terrorism have had on public space. Closing it as a symbolic act might initiate an overdue discussion about the loss of even more important public spaces, including the front entrance of the Supreme Court and the west terrace of the Capitol. It would be a dramatic reminder of the choices we as a nation have made, and perhaps an inspiration to change our ways in favor of a more open, risk-tolerant society that understands public space always has some element of danger.

Other groups have other ideas for the monument's security, including embedding magnetometers directly in the stone walls of the door at the obelisk's base. And the tunnel idea might be revisited for two reasons. First, if the tunnel were extended slightly (across 15th Street NW) to the site of the future Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, there would be a powerful symbolic connection between the founder of the country and the slave system that nourished and molded him. It would also drive traffic to the new museum, including visitors who might otherwise not cross its threshold.

But mostly, the idea of a tunnel from the forthcoming museum is appealing because it would be impractical for all of the reasons the 2003 tunnel was impractical. Which is a good thing.

The longer it takes to get approval and funding to execute this project, the better. Like the ghastly plan for an unnecessary visitors center at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, delay is welcome. When it comes to permanently remaking established landscapes and diminishing beloved icons, gridlock can be your friend.

The public comment meeting on the Washington Monument security options will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the National Park Service's National Capital Region Headquarters, 1100 Ohio Dr. SW.

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