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Sherwood's Notebook: Rethinking "Securicrat" America

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Members of the U.S. Capitol Police stand guard on the west front steps of the Capitol building.

    In the years since 9/11, the Notebook has cautioned against an excess of security bureaucracy that undermines the very freedoms we think we’re protecting.

    For example, whole swaths of public land were closed off with barriers and bollards where tourist families once parked to visit our nation’s capital.

    We’ve all watched as most every federal building or private office space has been “hardened,” with employees walking around with blazing “security” badges once reserved for the FBI, CIA and other uniquely sensitive sites.

    And, of course, too many police officers or private security guards disrupt routine news gathering with inappropriate demands for identification or instructions not to photograph this or that site.

    Well, maybe our country is ready to take a deep breath.

    The National Capital Planning Commission, which signs off on most federal projects in our region, increasingly is trying to marry real security needs -- real security needs -- with openness and access rather than just shutting everything down.

    Federal buildings are seeing ground-floor retail open up in spaces that once were blocked off to the very public the buildings serve.

    The multibillion-dollar redevelopment of the old St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast into a mighty fortress for the Department of Homeland Security is faltering. The bottom-line folks are looking at the huge costs and bunker mentality that the whole project reflects. That site may not become the grandiose headquarters initially envisioned.

    And now, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is going a step further.

    Norton is proposing a national commission to rethink the nation’s response to the fear of terrorism and its effect on American values.

    In her release, Norton said she wants “a commission of experts from a broad spectrum of disciplines to investigate how to maintain democratic traditions of openness and access while responding adequately to the substantial security threats posed by terrorism.”

    Under Norton’s proposal, the president would appoint nine members, and six each would come from the House and the Senate.

    Norton calls her proposal the “United States Commission on an Open Society With Security Act.”

    It sounds like a good idea, but don’t get your hopes up. Norton first began working on this idea in 1995 when the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue NW was abruptly shut down after a bomb went off in Oklahoma City. Surrounding streets also were closed, creating traffic nightmares and hurting the economy of the city. All appeals by business leaders, with their proposed redesigns and statistics, have gone unheeded.

    “Taxpaying citizens are still unable to enter some federal buildings to use restrooms or restaurant facilities,” Norton said in her statement with the proposal. “Security in and around federal buildings and areas is neither uniform nor professionally tailored [to real concerns].”

    Norton suggests the commission could be a model for states and local governments that also have engaged in almost knee-jerk shutdowns. (The Notebook wants to point out that “knee-jerk” is our word, not Ms. Norton’s.)

    But Norton is on the right path.

    She says there’s a need for “a commission with fresh eyes and a balanced approach to ensure the preservation of an open, democratic society.”

    • But what if?

    The problem with such rational thinking about a commission is simple. Whether before the commission is created, during its work or after, one significant incident of terrorism and you’ll hear a thousand versions of “I told you so.”

    That is the first hurdle any commission would have to overcome -- the fear that “something might happen,” which leads to constant vigilance and giving up freedoms we once treasured.

    Surely there is a way that rational and respectful voices can rethink the whole path our nation is now traveling.

    • The primary recap.

    Our deadline came before Tuesday’s election results were known. If you’re not burned out on the post-election analysis, tune in Friday for the Kojo Nnamdi “Politics Hour” on WAMU 88.5. Your Notebook will be the guest host, and I’m sure we’ll find something you haven’t heard.