Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Suffering from Security

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, March 2, 2004 --  

As I was biking home from work, a young Secret Service officer walked into the road circling the Ellipse and held out her hand.

"You can't go this way, it's closed. Go back the way you came."

Noting that we were three blocks away from the White House, and separated by yet another closed street, I protested the necessity of this new closure. The officer dismissed me with four words: "It's good for you."

Well, it's not good for the country. Two and a half years after the September 11th attacks, American citizens around the country face onerous restrictions that serve no purpose other than the interests of lazy and entrenched security nomenklatura. No place is this more true than in the nation's capital, which probably hosts more security agencies than anyplace in the world.

Take Washington DC's Old Post Office, for example. The beautiful Richardson Romanesque building was saved from the wrecking ball by preservationists, and redeveloped in 1980s as a food court and a collection of souvenir shops. But because the building is owned by the federal government, it is subject to the same insane security procedures as high-profile agencies such as the IRS and the FBI. A thirsty tourist looking to buy a soda or get a White House snow globe must wait in line to go through metal detectors and x-rays machines at one of two obscure side entrances. Each of these entrances maintains different and unposted opening hours from the interior of the building. The grand main entrance on Pennsylvania avenue has been closed for years, perhaps because the Quick Pita falafel stand in the food court is considered a prime target of al-Qaeda.

Nearer to the White House and the Capitol, visitors find half the streets on the map closed to through traffic, with giant metal barriers and guard booths blocking vehicular access. These closed streets spread like cancer. Construction causes blocks to be closed "temporarily" without any review, and then they are never opened again. To add insult to injury, traffic signals at intersections of closed streets are not removed. Law-abiding drivers sitting at a red light can do nothing but fume at the 30-seconds of green time reserved for a right-of-way that has long been closed to traffic.

But it's not just in the capital that these restrictions hurt Americans. In any municipal airport, leaving your jacket on an airplane virtually ensures that you will never get it back. Once past the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint, arriving passengers are not allowed to backtrack 100 feet to the gate, even if they still have their boarding passes. Begging for mercy with the airline is most likely to lead to buck-passing to the TSA. Kiss your jacket goodbye.

The problem with all these security restrictions is that there is no means of oversight or appeal. Security agencies have an inherent preference for blunt instruments that eliminate risks via the simplest means possible. Unfortunately, these are the same means that impose the greatest burden on law-abiding citizens. Dozens of security agencies are busily building thousands of tiny barriers, both physical and procedural, that taken together seriously impact Americans' quality of life.

The constitutional system of checks and balances works great at the macroscopic level. Congress and the judiciary are able to counterbalance any executive branch regulation that oversteps its authority. But neither Congress nor the judiciary have any system to review these millions of microscopic security measures. The sheer size of the executive branch's security apparatus puts it beyond any practical oversight by the other branches of government. Thus, the only groups who ever weigh the costs imposed by a new security measure are the very agencies that are responsible for security. From their perspective, every conceivable security barrier helps achieve their mission, expands their power, and covers their backsides.

It's good for us, they say. But it's not good for us, it's good for them. And as citizens are subjected to more and more barriers as they go about their daily business, it's the American way of life that suffers.

Related Web Columns:

Securing a Closed Society, October 3, 2000

The Disposable President, July 27, 1998