Latest News
HomeColumnsArticlesHas Sept 11 altered – perhaps forever – the special aura of Washington DC? by Steven Knipp

Has Sept 11 altered – perhaps forever – the special aura of Washington DC? by Steven Knipp

For generations of international visitors to Washington, it has long been seen as the most open capital in the world. Thousands of visitors entered the White House on free guided tours every weekday. Inside the FBI building, lantern-jawed agents told daily tour groups of how the famous agency battled crime.

Visitors could sit in on hearings of the US Supreme Court, and the US Treasury Department even showed tourists how it prints its money. The telephone number of the CIA was listed in the phone book, and there were highway signs giving directions to its leafy Langley, Virginia, headquarters.

Even the mighty Pentagon, brain center of America`s military might, offered 90-minute tours seven days a week, bringing scores of tourists, domestic and foreign alike, through some of the building`s 12 miles of corridors. The only requirement was to make bookings a few days ahead and to bring your passport. Information brochures were handed out in a dozen different languages, including Russian, Chinese, Korean and Greek.

But since September 11, 2001, virtually all of this wonderful American openness has been swept away.

True, America`s immensely powerful military forces have destroyed Afghanistan`s appalling Taliban regime. And they have apparently backed Osama bin Laden — the evil mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks — into a remote province along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

But meanwhile, back at home, a terrible price has been paid. Most noticeably in the American capital. Before the fanatical attack on the United States 37 months ago, Washington was unquestionably the most open capital in the world.

Today, much of this beguiling democratic American straightforwardness has been rudely torn away, possibly never to return. And the nation once known as the land of the free and the home of the brave now seems both less free and less brave. Washington today is a heavily armed, hunkered- down capital. The city on the Potomac appears to be a city under siege. Congress has allocated more than $600 million for increased security for the capital.

Police cars and SUVs with tinted windows constantly patrol the National Mall, stopping passing trucks for random inspections. Sniffer dogs roam the Senate Office building. Capitol police use mirrors to check for bombs hidden beneath the cars of staff people who work there. Helicopters watch the sky. And Ray-Ban-wearing sharpshooters are seen openly walking the White House roof.

Under the city`s streets, inside the Metro stations, recorded announcements appeal to passengers to report packages that appear suspicious. Everywhere one looks, huge concrete barriers have been set up — encircling the Capitol, in front of the State Department, around the national monuments, and near dozens of federal office buildings.

Some defensive obstructions have been disguised as giant flower planters, but others are simply ugly concrete blocks, known as Jersey barriers, which now mar many of the broad avenues of the once elegant southern city surveyed by George Washington in 1791. Noted Washington architect Arthur Cotton Moore calls the multiple, mismatched layers of concrete protection a trashing of the city … We are creating a monument to the Jersey barrier. Visitors to the capital are quickly made aware of Washington`s wary stance. Even before boarding their Washington-bound plane, most travelers have to step out of their shoes and pull off their belts in order to pass through metal detectors to get on their aircraft. Pilots tell passengers bound for Washington`s Reagan National Airport that US federal law forbids them from leaving their seats during the last 30 minutes of the flight. Should you disregard this directive, and stand up, the flight will immediately be diverted to another airport. Every commercial airliner flying into the capitol carries an armed US air marshal. Their identity is meant to be secret, but they are easy to spot. Well-built young men sitting in business-class aisle seats, they wear open sports jackets and have magazines in their laps, which they never seem to read.

Those long familiar with Washington lifestyles may recall paranoia surfacing — albeit not on this unprecedented scale — during the tension of the Cold War years. Yet in the past, Washington had remained completely open through four presidential assassinations, eight attempts on the lives of presidents, a Civil War that raged only miles away and two world wars. But now, it has been reduced.. All because of 19 men, armed with box cutters, who were able to enter the country only because of incompetent immigration officials. To continue to close off the nation`s capitol to the very people to whom it belongs seems both unwarranted and misguided, say a growing number of critics. The need for common-sense vigilance, they say, has now slipped into ugly paranoia.

The grassy area in front of the south lawn of the White House, known as the Ellipse, has long been a favorite place for Sunday touch football games, played by university students, and a choice photo spot for tourists. Today, this area has been pulled into the White House`s so-called security zone, which the U.S. Secret Service calls the box. Visitors can still play baseball there, and pose for photos, but legally the Secret Service has virtually unlimited discretion to do what it feels necessary to protect a president, and there is talk of expanding the security zone around the White House to include Lafayette Park, which faces the north side of the White House and has been a place of giddy protest for generations. Both could then be closed to visitors with almost no notice.

The section of Pennsylvania Avenue fronting the White House is already closed, and the north lawn of the mansion can now be seen only through a 6- foot chain-link fence. Just a few hundred yards from the White House, across Constitution Avenue, the Washington Monument is encircled by an ugly 10-foot gray wall. Officials say it`s only temporary and will be taken down in early 2005, once a more permanent and less intrusive earthen wall is constructed.

Perhaps the most dramatic change has been the extensive redevelopment of the Capitol grounds. It was once a splendid bucolic setting of century-old oak trees and slopes of Bermuda grass, where this writer once enjoyed reading the Sunday papers on a picnic blanket, and where friendly passing National Park Police would look the other way if they spotted an open beer bottle — an offense in Washington. Today, the grounds are being torn up to make way for a new underground visitor`s center, which will include sweeping new security measures. The outer perimeter near the surrounding streets have been lined with a series of concrete barriers.

Closer in, a wooden wall and chain-link fencing have been thrown up around the Capitol itself, preventing walkers or joggers from stepping onto the grounds except at the main entrances.The overall effect suggests that security planners want to transform the Capitol (known historically as the People`s house) into an enclosed facility like a military base with specific points of entry, where only people with the right papers, or with appointments, will be permitted to pass unsightly security huts.

Sharp-eyed return visitors have also noticed that Washington’s many august marble monuments, which at night were once proudly flood-lit in great light – thus creating one of the most romantic images of the city – are now much less brightly lit, least they make a possible target for terrorists. Trying to have an open city is hard, Washington mayor Tony Williams said recently. But Washington is a working symbol of democracy. We could make it really a lot safer by putting Jersey barriers around everything, but then we wouldn`t have much of a city to protect.