Where Will We Draw the Line?

Washington Post - Monday, May 22, 1995

For the first time in the nation's history, that short stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House known as "America's Main Street" has been made off-limits to traffic. President Clinton said his decision to close the avenue was "practical" and a "responsibile security step necessary to preserve our freedom, not part of a long-term restriction on our freedom." But the closing, as we understand it, is permanent and, whether we like it or not, a concession to terrorism. It is a sad commentary on our times.

By the end of today's rush hour or maybe over the next few days, we will know if the predictions of gridlock and traffic nightmare on the surrounding streets will come true. Police, fire and traffic experts with the District government, Metro and other government agencies have been scrambling to devise plans to prevent the heart of downtown Washington from becoming a parking lot. In addition to streets being closed and bus routes being revised, plans are on the derawing board to change street traffic patterns if circumstances warrant such drastic steps. In anticipation of a traffic mess today, federal workers are being given an extra hour to get to work. That allowance might be extended for the next couple of days to smooth the adjustments. Commuters, city residents and tourists have much to cope with in the weeks ahead. In speaking of Pennsylvania Avenue's new look with a proposed pedestrian plaza, former FBI and CIA director William H. Webster, who served on the White House Security advisory panel, said, "I'll bet if we do it right, no one will remember there ever was driving on Pennsylbania Avenue." With all due respect, we hope people will never forget.

Closing Pennsylbania Avenue pulls the shades over a symbol of our open democracy that has endured since the founding of the Republic. Threat by threat, restriction by restriction, and inch by inch, we have seen a security-imposed divide separating the president from the people grow ever wider. With each new menace, security breach or terrorist fear a new set of conditions are boundaries is imposed between the people and the president and our democratic symbols. Americans must never get used to that.

At some point, our open, democratic society can give no more. Closing off symbols of our openness must be fully justified and not done, despite the risks, without public notice or discussion.

Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park