I remember living in Washington briefly during the 1980s. It was easy to enter Congress and walk amid the grand rooms and imposing statues, occasionally bumping into senators. Even the White House was relatively accessible, as it had always been designed to be.
No more. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 1998 Capitol shooting and 9/11, citizens who wish to go to the Capitol must go through a tightly controlled tour that begins in a vast underground “visitor center,” where they are forced to watch a movie. (Can’t we watch the movie at home?) Over the same period, ugly barricades were thrown up around the White House, with parts of Pennsylvania Avenue blocked off. Since the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, even more barriers went up around the White House. In the wake of Jan. 6, it is surely going to get worse.
I understand the need for security, but in a democracy, that has to be balanced against the need for openness and accessibility. Pierre L’Enfant, the architect of Washington, D.C., designed the city’s broad avenues so that people could always see the country’s great government buildings, which he believed were symbols of democracy. The country spent extravagantly building the Capitol, persevering in its construction even during the Civil War because it was a monument for its citizens, not an office building for the politicians.
The situation is much worse abroad. The United States’ diplomatic outposts used to be handsome buildings in the center of cities where people could meet and events were held. I recall going to watch classic Hollywood movies sponsored by the U.S. Information Service at the stunning seaside consulate in Mumbai. But that architectural jewel has been sold off, as have others. U.S. diplomats now often work in fortress-like buildings, behind concrete blast walls, with multiple layers of security, rarely encountering the people of the country they are in. If you want to know why, after 20 years and trillions of dollars, the United States is not well understood or loved in Iraq or Afghanistan, visit the U.S. embassies in their capitals.
The United States has more of an imperial apparatus than many actual empires did. For decades, even when London ruled the world, anyone could walk right up to 10 Downing Street, the home and office of the British prime minister. After a string of IRA bombings in the 1980s, the government installed simple gates, blocking off one small street. Even the French, who are partial to grandeur, have a modest set of low, movable barriers around the Élysée Palace, which houses the president.
The way American politics works today, you are rewarded only for advocating more security. So, after 9/11, embassies and consulates around the world turned down hundreds of thousands of qualified visitors because the officials denying the applications pay no political costs for doing so. But had they let in one person who committed a terrorist attack, they would have been hauled in front of Congress and crucified. The same mentality explains the massive numbers of documents that are routinely classified. As a friend who works in government explained to me, “No one has ever been fired for classifying things as secret.” The result: massive over-classification, which limits information-sharing within government and with the public. (Former CIA director Michael Hayden recalls that he once got a top-secret message that read, “Merry Christmas.”)
This hyper-securitization is part of what the scholar Paul Light calls the “thickening” of government, the adding of layers and layers of hierarchy and more procedures — which creates a more closed, bureaucratic and inflexible organization. He writes, “COVID-19 showed just how far Americans must go to find accountability in the federal hierarchy. Health care heroes waiting for personal protective equipment faced 18 layers between the top of the Department of Health and Human Services and the PPE at the Strategic National Stockpile. Small businesses waiting for Paycheck Protection support faced 16 layers between the top of the Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration’s program office.”
If you are trying to understand why America performs so poorly in situations such as the pandemic and is also so distrusted by its citizens, this might be a crucial part of the answer. The U.S. government now resembles a dinosaur — a large, lumbering beast with much body and little brain, increasingly well-protected but distant from ordinary people and unresponsive to the real challenges that confront the nation.