One of the many things that The Scrapbook doesn’t like about life in modern Washington—aside from the politics, of course—is the extent to which the nation’s capital, especially its downtown core, has become a high-pitch security zone. Access to public spaces and buildings is severely restricted; there are several competing police jurisdictions, all eager to respond to perceived emergencies. When a VIP is transported from one fundraiser to another, the route (and adjacent blocks) are shut down tight while a long, screaming motorcade of cops and Secret Service agents flies past.
Between the guns, blackened windows, and scrum of glaring guards, you could easily imagine you’re in downtown Caracas, and Generalissimo Whatsisname has just whizzed by.
As always, The Scrapbook is quick to acknowledge that safety and security are important, especially in the post-9/11 world, and people who live and work in Washington understand this more than most. In a democratic society such as ours, however, there must be limits. For if safety and security were absolutely paramount, and the Secret Service ran things more than it already does, our elected officials, and especially our president, would live in a series of underground bunkers, shielded and cosseted, moving about in absolute secrecy, seen by none but authorized eyes. This is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind.
A good—or we should say, horrifying—example of this mentality is contained in the current proposal from Terry Gainer, former head of the U.S. Capitol police force, who believes that, at the heart of this ancient democracy, safety comes first. Accordingly, he is demanding that the federal government purchase the dozen square blocks surrounding the Capitol building, construct a “functional yet tasteful” fence around Congress, and create what one admiring Washington Post columnist calls a “pedestrian-only campus at the east end of the Mall.”
Automobile traffic would be banned, of course, and access to the lively Capitol Hill neighborhood would be blocked on (now-) busy Constitution and Independence avenues. Union Station would be largely inaccessible by car or taxi, and institutions such as the Library of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, even the Folger Shakespeare Library, would be marooned in a militarized security zone.
Of course, Gainer’s idea may be malevolent, but Gainer himself is no fool: This gruesome transformation of the Capitol’s character—from park-like grandeur to prison-like bleakness—is cast in environmental terms: “The Mall gets larger,” he tells the Post, “greener [and the] air cleaner, and safety abounds.”
Indeed, the Mall would not only get “greener,” but might largely be devoid of (civilian) human life. Thanks to the various Terry Gainers among us, it is already a challenge, even slightly perilous, to traverse the Capitol neighborhood—streets are blockaded, ingress is restricted—or to approach the building itself. With this new proposal, the principle of citizen access to the legislature, of peacefully petitioning our representative government, would be lost in environmentally friendly obstructions, a reductio ad absurdum of fear and “security.”
In The Scrapbook’s opinion, if Gainer and his fans in the press want cleaner air, they should plant some much-needed trees along the Mall and relax in the shade.