The Washington Post

Security mania takes away a monumental view

Crowds gather on the National Mall in Washington for the swearing-in ceremony of President-elect Barack Obama. The view is from behind the inaugural podium on the West Front of the Capitol. (Bill O'Leary/THE WASHINGTON POST)

If the Mall is a work of “civic art,” as it has been defined in federal legislation, then the best place to see this canvas of green grass and white stone is from the west terrace of the U.S. Capitol. Once open to the public, there is no better view of the monumental core of the city, no better way to understand the genius and evolution of Pierre L’Enfant’s original design for the District, no more revelatory spot to feel the gentle rise of the city from its swampy lowlands to its inland heights.

But all of that is now a privilege for Members Only. Sometime after Sept. 11, 2001, this magnificent feature of Washington architecture and urban design was taken away from the people. The reason? The same one that led to the theft of the Supreme Court front entrance, to the barren waste of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House and to the profusion of bollards and barriers that still clutter so much of downtown D.C.: security mania.

Will it ever reopen? A spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol bounced the query to the U.S. Capitol Police, who said they didn’t know but to try the sergeants at arms for the Senate and the House. No one could give an answer to basic questions.

This isn’t just the usual bureaucratic runaround. This is the Regime of Security in action. Public space is taken from the public, without proper democratic process and irrevocably. Even the logic is strategically forgotten. From the terrace, you might once have pondered the greatness of democracy. From the sides of Capitol Hill, where you can see the forlorn and empty terrace and the now off-limits grand staircase, you can only contemplate the slow creep of authoritarianism, written into our civic landscape by bureaucrats, timorous and responsible to no one.

Got a rant?
Got a suggestion for Washington’s arts community? Send it to, and we’ll run the most interesting. Please include name, city and contacts.

Got a rant?
Got a suggestion for Washington’s arts community?
Send it to therant@, and we’ll run the most interesting. Please include name, city and contacts.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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