Freedom, Fear, and Terrorism

If the United States is winning the war on terrorism, as the Bush administration claims, then why does irrational response to unreasonable fear persist in so many quarters?

Consider the exasperated parents who swore off visits to national monuments after a trip to Pearl Harbor last summer. The couple and their two young sons waited in line two hours to get through security -- only to be handed timed tickets dictating another two-hour wait.

"And you couldn't even spend that time looking around," the mother says, "because you couldn't leave the secured area." The family outing they had hoped to enjoy was an ordeal to be endured.

An earlier visit to the St. Louis arch was equally onerous. "I wanted my children to see all the things I saw as a child," says the mother. "But now there's no point. [Because of security measures] they can't enjoy them."

Some so-called precautions may actually diminish safety, such as the U.S. Park Police practice of fencing off the National Mall on the Fourth of July and forcing visitors to enter through checkpoints. If something did go wrong, thousands of people would be trapped within a confined space.

The Park Police no longer pretend that the checkpoints are a counter-terrorism measure. They admit they are looking for "alcoholic beverages, glass bottles, fireworks," etc. But determined scofflaws will hide drugs among sandwiches or pour beer into baby bottles.

Subjecting Americans to police searches before entering the National Mall protects no one, may endanger many, and mocks the freedom the Mall is supposed to memorialize. Yet the Park Police, like the Secret Service, are rarely forced to justify their practices. As executive-branch agents, they answer to the president and are unaccountable to the public.

That's why it is incumbent on Congress to intervene when protective measures become excessive. Why shouldn't security precautions be subjected to cost-benefit analyses the same as other government functions?

For instance, the Washington Monument recently underwent years of renovation designed to improve, among other things, its security. But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress caved in to the Park Service's demand for an underground visitors' center, despite the huge expense to taxpayers and engineers' concern that tunneling could threaten the monument’s stability.

Neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush produced the required "finding of fact" to keep Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street closed to traffic. Made of steel-reinforced concrete, the White House sits more than 300 feet from Pennsylvania Avenue -- a distance even the Secret Service acknowledges as sufficient blast protection in its guidelines for embassies.

Robert Hershey, president of the D.C. Society of Professional Engineers, has demonstrated empirically that "there is no danger to the White House occupants from a car bomb on Pennsylvania Avenue." Yet the streets remain closed because the Secret Service has virtually unlimited power to act on the president's behest.

What the Bush administration ought to exemplify -- and its policies reflect -- is a defiant refusal to be terrorized.

Although terrorists indeed pose a threat, the odds of any given American being attacked on any given day by terrorists remain remote. Horrendous as the loss of life was on Sept. 11, 2001, it is important to remember how many Americans survived direct assault that day. Of the 50,000 people who worked in the World Trade Center, about 2,800 died. More than 23,000 people worked at the Pentagon; 184 were killed.

The plane that crashed in Pennsylvania had a capacity for 289, but only 40 individuals were aboard. Operating freely, terrorists succeeded in killing less than 1 percent of the Americans they targeted.

Today, the country is vigilant, and many terrorists have been imprisoned or deported. Intelligence agents estimated last year that al-Qaeda had about 100 operatives in the United States. Trying to thwart 100 thugs by subjecting 291 million Americans to police searches before entering public buildings and open spaces, monuments and museums defines unreasonable search and produces unreasonable restriction.

Moreover, the overreaction sets a standard that private facilities feel obliged to follow. Perfunctory searches now are routine at entrances to private facilities such as amusement parks and sports arena. Unnecessary inconvenience is becoming an American institution.

"Freedom and fear are at war," says President Bush, "and freedom is winning." But comparing our way of life now to before Sept. 11, the obvious question is: where?

Melanie Scarborough writes a monthly column for the Washington Post. Her paper "The Security Pretext: An Examination of the Growth of Federal Police Agencies" was published in June by the Cato Institute.