In post-9/11 Washington, laser scans and few tours
Tourism is way down in nation's capital as officials try to strike balance between security and openness.
WASHINGTON — The cherry blossoms are only a few weeks away in the nation's capital - a time of year when the usual crowds of visitors turn into a throng. But crowds have not been the norm in this city, not since a plane slammed into the Pentagon.
Washington has taken on the look of a city gearing up for a siege. Concrete barriers and upturned sewer pipes (posing as planters) have multiplied across the city, especially around Congress. Streets around the Capitol have been closed. Bomb-sniffing dogs and National Guardsmen in camouflage patrol driveways and entrances to House and Senate offices.
No one disputes the need for more protection. But striking a balance between security and the openness required in a democracy is an unresolved legacy of 9/11, at least here in the center of government. Moreover, while the physical barriers to thwart terrorists went up quickly, the human face of this new culture of security has been tougher to work out. "It looks like a fort," says a South Carolina teenager, on her first trip to the Capitol.
Lobbyists complain they can no longer move about the Capitol freely or meet congressional members outside of a fundraiser. Lawmakers worry that the barriers are sending a message that the House of Representatives - the "people's house" - is no longer open to the people.
"This place is beginning to look like a crime scene, rather than the nation's capital. In a few week ... we're going to have to go back to this issue," says Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, who as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee deals with Capitol security.
In fact, the new restrictions after 9/11 could have been far worse. Congress blocked a bid to close neighboring Constitution and Independence Avenues to traffic. Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was closed to traffic after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. "Once you set security in place, it never seems to relax. It's cumulative," says Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska.
Still, the number of visitors allowed inside the Capitol is down sharply: from as many as 25,000 a day before the attacks to about 600 a day last week, and those only in prescreened and escorted groups. No more wandering the Capitol looking for a sandwich or a senator.
The White House tour, once a staple of any visit to Washington, is now only open to school tours. "It's such a shame. You can't even see the White House when you drive by," says Janet Wilson of Norman, Okla. Even the state's senior senator couldn't help her get in to see the Capitol.
Tours of the Pentagon and the FBI, other popular venues, have also been closed to the public. Limited FBI tours resumed only last week. And the broad marble terrace of the Capitol that looks out across the Mall (a classic Washington vista) was closed "indefinitely" after 9/11.
Since the anthrax attack in October, mail to Capitol Hill has been redirected through a remote irradiation process, then screened again at the Capitol. It adds about a week to the time it takes for mail to reach a member's inbox.
The US Congress has never lacked for security threats. Burned down by the British in 1814, the Capitol was occupied by Union troops during the Civil War and fake cannon were placed along the roof to deceive would-be attackers. In 1915, the Capitol was bombed by a former German college instructor who didn't approve of US arms sales to Britain. Other bombings were carried out by radicals with the Weather Underground, in 1971, and by a group opposed to President Reagan's foreign policies, in 1983.
With each attack or threat, new plans emerged for how to make the Capitol more secure - bomb-sniffing dogs, then metal detectors, and finally the barriers. Each time the plans came up, lawmakers also rejected proposals that they said would put too much distance between Congress and the public, such as a fence around the Capitol grounds or bullet-proof glass around the visitors' galleries.
"This is the people's house, and they need to have free access and not feel as if we're building a bunker," says Alan Hantman, architect of the Capitol.
The response to Sept. 11 has been more wide-ranging than any previous review, with at least some attention to aesthetics. At the Washington Monument, concrete barriers will be replaced by sunken paths that could block a truck bomber. In addition to the security moves at the Capitol, the architect's office completed a laser scan of the building's facade, accurate to within two millimeters. It could be used to restore any parts damaged in subsequent attacks.
Plans were accelerated for a new $265 million center that will screen visitors underground before admittance to the Capitol. "At the end of this project, the Capitol will be more beautiful than it has been in our lifetime," says Mr. Hantman.