WHEN PRESIDENT-elect Clinton arrived here in January 1993, Washington's shrines to democracy were so open to crowds of people and free events that his multicultural inaugural festival was billed as "America's Reunion on the Mall." Today, the capital looks like a city under siege. Massive concrete planters, fences, vans and sturdy police vehicles close off buildings and block intersections where cars and pedestrians once enjoyed unimpeded access. The face of Washington has been changed by fear of terrorism.
Each year seems to bring more defensive perimeters and a fortresslike appearance to the nation's symbols of freedom. And it matters not where terror originates or strikes. Bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania led to the erection of temporary barriers and closing of the vehicle entrance into the Jefferson Memorial parking lot for an indefinite period. The Oklahoma City bombing prompted closing of a two-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue and areas around the White House to vehicle traffic by President Clinton three years ago. Post CityScape reporter Benjamin Forgey describes today's White House area as "a dispiriting place, an abandoned boulevard" giving the city's monumental core a "siegelike look."
The nation's capital ought to shed the fearful image it has gradually adopted under the Clinton administration. Of course the reality of terrorism requires a ratcheting up of security in federal structures that are vulnerable to attack. That is true of federal establishments around the country. Verified security threats certainly justify strengthening physical defenses. But even then, a standard of reasonableness must be observed, since double rows of concrete highway barriers, trucks and gatehouses are of limited value against a potential chemical or biological attack.
There is a quickness to erect walls and close off streets that ought to be balanced by prudence and respect for Washington's civic beauty -- of which the nation is justifiably proud. Enough of ugliness.