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. The latest move by Capital Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer and Senate Sergeant-at-Arms William H. Pickle to set up 14 vehicle checkpoints and close a main city thoroughfare -- First Street NE between Constitution Avenue and D Street -- is a massive step in that direction. District officials, led by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mayor Anthony A. Williams, have rightly objected to this precipitate and unilateral action, calling it a danger and disruption to the lives of residents, tourists, businesses and the flow of commerce. The mayor also expressed concern about the potential loss of access for fire and emergency vehicles. Making a larger point, the mayor said in a statement: "We cannot allow the symbols of American freedom and democracy to be transformed into fortresses of fear." That, however, is exactly what U.S. security officials, in the name of fighting terrorism, are doing.

Chief Gainer, a high-ranking D.C. police officer before becoming the Capitol's top cop, should appreciate as much as anyone on Capitol Hill the importance of consulting and working cooperatively with city officials on security matters. Had he done so, as Ms. Norton suggested yesterday, he might have discovered that there are several practical alternatives, such as the use of Jersey barriers now in place around many high-security federal buildings. The chief didn't have to go to the extreme of a complete closure. The same caution applies to his scheme for multiple checkpoints, which will help create gridlock and massive backups during rush hour, especially when Congress is in session, as the mayor noted yesterday.

But the negative consequences of closing off more and more streets go beyond the practical. This city is a symbol of American freedom. "Walling off the Capitol," as Mr. Williams observed, "is a capitulation to terrorism." To imprison the shrines of freedom -- the House and Senate, the Library of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court -- behind blocked streets and gates makes a mockery of our claim to be a free and open society that can provide for the nation's security. America can and should find ways to respect both security and openness. The creeping fortification of this city devalues what should make it special. It's not too late for Capitol officials to rethink their decisions. It's not too soon to begin undoing the wrong right now.