The Wages of Fear: Closing the Washington Monument

Great column from security guru Bruce Schneier on how DHS and the Park Service should go about securing the Washington Monument. He says, close the damn thing until we're ready to admit that security theater doesn't work, and only helps to assuage our fears (h/t Marginal Revolution).

Securing the Washington Monument from terrorism has turned out to be a surprisingly difficult job. The concrete fence around the building protects it from attacking vehicles, but there's no visually appealing way to house the airport-level security mechanisms the National Park Service has decided are a must for visitors. It is considering several options, but I think we should close the monument entirely. Let it stand, empty and inaccessible, as a monument to our fears.

An empty Washington Monument would serve as a constant reminder to those on Capitol Hill that they are afraid of the terrorists and what they could do. They're afraid that by speaking honestly about the impossibility of attaining absolute security or the inevitability of terrorism -- or that some American ideals are worth maintaining even in the face of adversity -- they will be branded as "soft on terror." And they're afraid that Americans would vote them out of office if another attack occurred. Perhaps they're right, but what has happened to leaders who aren't afraid? What has happened to "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself"?

An empty Washington Monument would symbolize our lawmakers' inability to take that kind of stand -- and their inability to truly lead.


The empty monument would symbolize our war on the unexpected, -- our overreaction to anything different or unusual -- our harassment of photographers, and our probing of airline passengers. It would symbolize our "show me your papers" society, rife with ID checks and security cameras. As long as we're willing to sacrifice essential liberties for a little temporary safety, we should keep the Washington Monument empty

No one remembers this, but back in the Eighties, some nut drove a panel van up to the Monument and announced that he had placed a bomb in it. (I don't remember if he had any demands ,but do remember that he was a middle aged white guy). After a several hours long televised stand-off, the nut was shot dead. When authorities opened up the truck they found...nothing. No bomb. No danger. A perfect example of how terrorism attacks the mind and the soul more than it targets people and things.

Counter-terrorism as practiced in the US treats everybody in the country as a potential terrorist. This despite the fact that virtually none of the people being "investigated" through pat-downs and purse-searches are terrorists. The joke is that we all know who the terrorists are, and can probably agree on five characteristics that would identify 90+ percent of all terrorists...but the security professionals assure us that the one thing they cannot do is rely on that sort of thing because it's "profiling." How convenient that they can just turn off their brains and do mass searches of the innocent public, rather than actually use their heads and do some actual counter-terrorism. (and how reminiscent of Viet Nam-era metrics of success like body counts).

Security pros always have a ready retort: hey, if there's another big attack, it'll be our heads because the public will be furious that we didn't connect the dots. But, dots don't connect because you put tourists through magnetometers. They get connected by police work and intelligence, but these are fatally hampered by a legal environment that practically guarantees the present dysfunctions. Pre-9/11, you couldn't connect the dots because the legal left had convinced the government that the FBI and CIA could not communicate with each other, among many other things. Post-9/11, that same legal left has been resisting any and all attempts to rationalize the collection of useful intelligence, or use the dread profiling, to combat terrorists both at home and abroad. All we are left with are pat-down at airports and tourist destinations, which at least have the virtue of simplicity. (and don't tell me the practitioners of punitive liberalism don't secretly thrill to the sight of middle class Americans having to choose between porno scanners or a genital grope).

The fact is that the only way to combat terrorism is to go out and find them and either kill them or take them to GITMO. America's expensive and disruptive security theater has nothing to do with this, and indeed is everyday becoming a substitute.

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