On July 4, visitors to the Statue of Liberty will again be able to climb the narrow, 168 spiraling stairs to her crown. It will be the first time since 9/11, when the terrorist attacks shut down the beloved symbol of freedom.
The decision to reopen the interior of the statue marks a change in the United States as well: The nation has grown more comfortable with the security requirements imposed by the threat of terrorism, say homeland security experts. As a result, America is also more confident in promoting freedom and opportunity – the country's original raison d'être (to use a French phrase in honor of the people of France, who gave Lady Liberty to the country in 1886).
For generations, the statue has been one of the most recognized icons of the US. Its inscription – "Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ..." – remains a beacon of hope to millions of people around the world.
"The fact that Al Qaeda had held her hostage was symbolically the wrong message to send," says Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, whose father felt welcomed to the US when he saw the statue from his plane on arriving from Italy. "All that said, hopefully it doesn't mean we're lulled into a sense of complacency, rather that freedom comes with risks and we are learning to manage them accordingly."
The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island were shut down immediately after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The statue remained closed for three years, during which the interior underwent a $20 million renovation and security upgrade. When the monument reopened in August 2004, visitors were allowed only into the 10-story pedestal and the observation deck. They could look up through a glass ceiling at the interior of the statue, but it remained closed.
Under the Bush administration, the National Park Service said the interior would remain closed indefinitely. The official reason cited was that its narrow stairs and low railing didn't meet fire codes. But the decision was also seen as a response – and to some an overreaction – to the threat of terrorism. In 2004, New York Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) began fighting to get the Park Service to reopen the statue's interior, saying it "will send a strong message that America will never yield in the face of terror."
When the Obama administration came into office, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made it clear that he shared Representative Weiner's concern. The interior's reopening "would proclaim to the world – both figuratively and literally – that the path to the light of liberty is open to all," he said.
On Friday morning, Secretary Salazar announced that people will be allowed to go up to the crown, but only in small groups and escorted by a park ranger. They will also have to undergo a double screening process to ensure the safety of other visitors and Lady Liberty herself.
"We've reached the point in the country where we've made routine the security procedures that are necessary to protect airports and public facilities. We still have a ways to go on the infrastructure and the ports," says Rudy deLeon, senior vice president of national security at the Center for American Progress in Washington. "But it's a sign of the new world after 9/11 that we're at the point where we're comfortable with these security procedures and can now again share these great resources and sites with the country."