Under no circumstances should the Secret Service be allowed to encroach further on the public space of Washington. Ill-considered, unnecessary and undemocratic security measures have already stolen from the American people the West Terrace of the Capitol, the front doors of the Supreme Court and the free flow of traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue at Lafayette Square. Now there are reports that the Secret Service is considering new security measures around the White House, including bag searches in nearby blocks.
These potential new intrusions on civil liberti
The Secret Service should examine its own failures before it further humiliates local citizens and tourists who circulate near the White House. It should not be rewarded with yet more control over public space. Nor should any further visual clutter around the White House perimeter be allowed, including any additions to the security fence or any loss of access to the fence itself. This is an institutional, organizational problem; it does not require an architectural solution.
The closure of the front doors of the Supreme Court greatly confuses the architectural experience of the building, especially the short axis between the entrance and the courtroom itself — a powerful enactment of our right to appeal unjust laws to the judiciary. The closure of the West Terrace of the Capitol denies residents and visitors the most accessible and dramatic view of Pierre L’Enfant’s basic plan of the city, its axial relation between the legal and executive branch, the monumental dramatization of the Civil War and reunification, and the passion for civil rights embodied in the Mall.
Now there may be plans to further alienate the White House — which, as the People’s House, should relate to its neighborhood in a modest, democratic, neighborly way — from its urban context. Visitors who come from around the country to understand and celebrate the glory of self-governance will be asked to sacrifice yet more of their constitutional rights in its proximity. Residents, who already endure the agony of motorcades and the surly demeanor of all manner of police, Secret Service and other security personnel, will be forced to suffer more of this abuse.
The loss of public space and the intrusion of the security apparatus into daily life are not merely inconveniences. Among the most cherished symbols of democracy is openness, including direct access to our leaders. Politicians, in a democracy, must understand that holding elected office means not only maintaining that direct connection to the people, but also incurring some inevitable measure of risk. If they do not wish to run the risk, they should not run for office.
It is not reasonable to ask a free people to continually submit to police control; doing so becomes ingrained, and when we freely submit to unreasonable searches, we lose the all-important, reflexive distrust of authority that helps keep us free. We must not allow the ever-increasing, ever-more-powerful security apparatus to train us in slavish behavior, or our deepest habits will conform to their darkest estimation of our worth.
“We throw open our city to the world,” Pericles said in his Funeral Oration. We, alas, have become the descendants not of that fine and fundamental sentiment of democracy, but of the brutal imperial arrogance that corrupted the Athenian state in later years.
Only weeks after events in Ferguson, Mo., revealed the extent to which we have militarized our police, we are asked to surrender yet more freedom of circulation in the national capital? This is fear-mongering, and worse, it is fear-mongering by a troubled federal agency that can’t seem to curb its own frat-boy culture of drunkenness and sexual license. Until the Secret Service has reformed itself, it should not be granted any further indulgence from the people.