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America vs. The World

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart. — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Capitol offense

Note from Buck: We will have several guest bloggers while Mero is on his honeymoon. Having served in the Peace Corps, Julie Beth gets the moral high ground for life.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer serving in the West African nation of Mali, I was sent to Washington, D.C., for medical tests. It was the first time I had been to the city since a family trip when I was 9 years old. I remembered loving it then, and I was excited to be able to see the sights again as a 23-year-old.

The Capitol
Your tax dollars at work.
One of my clearest memories from the family trip was racing up the Capitol steps with my cousins, running in the front doors and sneaking a peak into the Senate chambers as we walked by. There were security guards then, and metal detectors, but I did not notice them. I was too excited to meet my childhood senator, Sen. Bob Graham. The room was bustling with the activity of lobbyists, congressmen and women, staffers and citizens, all witnessing the processes of a democratic society. And I was thrilled to be a part of it all.

When I returned as a 23-year-old, I was sad to see that I would not be able to run up those steps again. And when I saw the signs for the new visitor center and the rules that say citizens cannot enter the Capitol except on a tour, I knew that my future children would never be allowed to run up those steps as I was.

Instead, they will be ushered through a back door, where the security checks are exactly the same as they were when I was a child. They will not be able to wander the halls alongside their senators and representatives, because those elected leaders have their own passageways now. In fact, they will enter the Capitol only if they make advance calls to their senators and representatives, or if they wake up early to stand in the long line to get the limited number of tickets for the day.

All of this will send my children the message that government is not for them, that it is only for those few who get elected, or for those who know the right people, or for those who do not sleep in.

There are many sights in Washington where you do not have to stand in line and you do not need to take a tour, but those places are museums. Museums are interesting and valuable, but they are buildings where things that are no longer alive go to rest. The Capitol is not a museum, though it surely seems like one to the hundreds of children who visit it each day and hear low voices where there was once lively discussion.

I do not know everything about security, but I do know that before Sept. 11, the Capitol was no less safe because its country's citizens came in through the front door. I do not know all the security precautions that were not chosen, but I do know that building an underground visitor center is not going to stop a terrorist who wants to terrorize.

I do not know all the evils that threaten all the doors of our Capitol, but I do know that only leaving the back door open to our citizens is just another door terrorists point to and say, "We're winning."

And I am sad that future 9-year-olds on their first trip to Washington will probably not know what they have lost as they wait in line in the basement of the Capitol.

P.S. The United States Capitol Visitor Center, which was scheduled to be completed in 2004, is now expected to be finished in 2007. The Government Accountability Office has estimated the final project will cost taxpayers about $550 million, more than double the original estimate.


Blogger Mandasaurus said...


Don't you think it's reasonable to take so long and spend so much when they are building something so great?

Check out what the Architect of the Capitol says:
"When it opens, the Visitor Center will provide visitors to the Capitol with a variety of amenities, including an exhibition gallery, orientation theaters, a 600-seat cafeteria, gift shops, and restrooms all within a secure public environment that will provide visitors shelter from the unpredictable D.C. weather."

I know I feel safer knowing that tourists won't have to bear occasional showers or humidity. Also, they're being really accountable because you can check the weekly construction updates here:

Heck, this week air handling units arrive! This is progress, right?

Maybe not.

Blogger Buck B. said...

I had a similar experience when I visited D.C. with my family a few years ago. Congress was out of town, and we were wandering around the second floor of the Capitol when we came to some velvet ropes blocking our path. Since no one was around, we stepped right past them and spent the next 30 minutes looking up at priceless paintings, trying locked doors and peering into the chambers where Congress conducts its business. It was awesome.

Like you, I regret that I'll probably never get to do anything like that again, nor will my children. And for what? The appearance of security without any actual increase in safety. The Bush administration is really good at that.

Here's passage from a recent Times Select column by John Tierney that could just as easily be written about the Capitol:

"Airport security isn't much better than it was on September 10," McHugh says. "Terrorists will always come up with something new. As long as we keep looking for things from the last plot, we're inconveniencing 99.99 percent of the people with no real benefit."

[The TSA] ignored the security model in Israel and much of Europe, where screening programs are run by airports under the guidance of a national agency. Instead, Congress ordered the TSA to both supervise and run the screening programs itself.

The result has been a waste of billions of dollars on an unwieldy federal agency that's become known as Thousands Standing Around. The TSA should be trying to anticipate new terrorist tactics, like the bomb plot uncovered in England, but it had to raid its research budget to pay for the screening program, as Eric Lipton and Matt Wald reported in The Times.

It should be looking for new ways to identify dangerous passengers, but it's too busy following Congress's mandates to search everyone's bags. Now screeners have even more stuff to look for as we all stand in line — well, almost all of us. Anyone serious about blowing up an airplane is off somewhere else working on something new.

Anonymous J.C. said...

When Mandasaurus' family visited Washington during her childhood, her father wrecked the rental car. That was certainly a memorable experience, but hopefully never to be repeated.

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