July 4th Commentaries on Fewer Freedoms on the Mall

Dear National Coalition to Save Our Mall Members and Friends:

There is both an article and a column to note in today’s Washington Post (7/4/02):

1. The article is titled “Fewer Freedoms on 4th” and it is by David A. Fahrenthold and Dan Eggen. Here is a key excerpt:

“The U.S. Park Police will be watching the Mall through a new network of security cameras that was set up in the last three weeks but announced only Tuesday. Yesterday, two key leaders criticized the Park Police, saying proper guidelines had not been presented for the use of the cameras.

“If you are going to be surveilled in public places by your government, you at least deserve to have notice of that,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

Norton and Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), who chairs the House Government Reform subcommittee on the District, issued a statement calling the cameras “unacceptable.” Norton said she had been briefed by Park Police officials Friday but had not been told about the cameras.

Last night, Park Police Chief Teresa C. Chambers said she did not intend “to have any elected officials surprised by something as important as this.”

Norton and Morella said the Park Police had not explained why they had not notified lawmakers about the cameras.

“When you consider that we had a hearing devoted exclusively to citizen surveillance” in March, Norton said, “they were under an obligation to mention surveillance on July Fourth.”

One of Norton’s staffers called the Park Police yesterday morning, and several hours later Norton said she received a one-page policy statement. That statement says that monitoring will take place only in areas “where no constitutionally protected reasonable expectation of privacy exists.” Police have promised to keep tapes for no more than 30 days — unless they need them as evidence in court — and to turn the cameras off after the holiday.

Norton and Morella called the policy statement incomplete and promised to hold a hearing soon.”

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2. And this thoughtful Commentary by Marc Fisher appears in the Metro Section:

Declaring Independence From Fear

By Marc Fisher

On this first American birthday since we lost our sense of independence, our illusion of invulnerability, we stand remarkably undamaged as individuals yet diminished as a nation.

We’re by no means the first Americans to suffer great loss — surely the sundering of the nation by civil war, the advent of the Great Depression and the attack on Pearl Harbor inflicted similar wounds — but we are perhaps the first to survive such a powerful hit without being called together in lasting action.

From the first days after last September’s assault, many Americans yearned to sacrifice, to defend what we cherish. But with the exception of those who’ve joined the military and the police, there has been little opportunity to serve. The government has failed to reach out for assistance in the battles to protect our institutions, educate our own people about American ideals, or let the world know what we really stand for.

Today, instead of demonstrating the advantages of openness, dissent and competition, we are hiding, readying ourselves for the next defeat.

In the courts, where we should show the world how a democracy treats those who would do it harm, we watch as the Justice Department argues for secret tribunals, closed hearings, preventive detention.

In this city, where our leaders should be balancing caution with a commitment to the openness that is at the heart of the American purpose, we see instead a retreat from sunlight: At the Capitol and now at the Washington Monument as well, the impulse is to tunnel into the ground, to treat citizens above all as threats. Construction on the underground complex where visitors to the Capitol will be funneled and screened is already underway. Approval of a similar approach to the Washington Monument could come next month.

Today, the monument stands like so many other Washington symbols, surrounded by ugly Jersey barriers plopped onto the Mall without regard for the message they send.

The National Park Service’s plan to replace the concrete barriers with walled-off walkways, a 400-foot-long tunnel and an underground visitors center nearly got a green light without much public discussion. But the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, which valiantly fought the losing battle to save us from the monstrous mistake of a World War II Memorial in the center of the Mall, and the Committee of 100, a group of architects, planners and historians who have protected Washington’s civic symbols for 80 years, are asking tough questions.

Would a tunnel endanger the monument, which stands on unstable soil? Would views on the Mall be marred even beyond the scar created by the World War II Memorial? Most important, would a tunnel really improve security?

“I fear the degradation of the visitor experience, which ought to include walking up the hill, not sneaking people through a basement,” says Don Hawkins, an architect and curator of the National Building Museum’s exhibition on Washington’s great symbols. “We each bring our own sense of George Washington to the monument, and its size and its grandeur tell us at what an elevation we hold him. If you put a tunnel through the hill, it changes the meaning of the monument.”

In an age of suicide bombers, an underground passage adds not security, but risk, says Robert Hershey, president of the D.C. Society of Professional Engineers. “Any tunnel magnifies the blast for anybody unfortunate enough to be in the tunnel. You run the risk of creating an attractive target.”

The Park Service says the alternative is to screen visitors near the Sylvan Theater, then escort them up the hill in “an aboveground, double-fenced security pathway,” which “would result in major negative impacts on the cultural landscape.”

There is, of course, another way. The kind of heavy bollards — short metal posts — now used outside the White House and other high-security facilities could stop vehicles from reaching the monument, without turning it into a permanent advertisement for our fears. Visitors could be screened in the existing lobby or a small building just outside, Hawkins says.

Fear motivated quick and easy security measures last fall. But after the fireworks, a nation needs to show more than fear — we need to demonstrate pride, purpose and confidence in the openness that got us through the first 226 years.

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Needless to say, we wish all of you a meaningful Independence Day and an enjoyable Holiday weekend…

Best regards,
Judy (and Neil)

 

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