Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Barricades of Washington

A Photo Essay of the Capital's Response to Terrorism

I had intended to write this post more that a year ago, but life beyond the blog intervened.

In the eleven years since 9/11, the landscape of Washington, DC, has undergone dramatic changes. Yet while these changes are dramatic from the perspective of a decade, they have occurred so gradually that they quickly fade into the background. These changes were foreshadowed by temporary responses to previous wars and bombings, but they have since been incorporated into the very structure of the city--a city and a federal government that is much less accessible than it was in the 20th century.

In the lead-up to the first Gulf War, concrete barricades were placed around the White House and streets were blocked off to protect against car bombings. I didn't see them because I was living in Denmark at the time, but I did see the barricades around the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen, which were replicated at U.S. Embassies throughout the world. A few years later and a month after the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton closed Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. This prompted a flood of objections from city leaders (almost all Democrats) and members of Congress, especially Republicans. The 2000 Republican Party Platform even promised: "We will reopen Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House as a symbolic expression of our confidence in the restoration of the rule of law." In March 2001, the House Oversight Committee even held a hearing on reopening Pennsylvania Avenue. At the time, it appeared that reopening America's "main street" was only a matter of time.

In the meantime, on Saturday and Sunday mornings, in-line skaters used the empty street for pick-up games of street hockey, which I occasionally enjoyed watching when I lived near the White House.

Source: https://sites.google.com/site/whitehousehockey/

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed everything. (See my earlier post "Remembering 9/11.) Since then, I have heard of no serious attempts to reopen the street.

Seemingly overnight after September 11, 2001, a maze of Jersey barriers sprouted around federal buildings, monuments, and other places of significance. Some of the institutions replaced the Jersey barriers with concrete planters, attempting to replace one eyesore with a greener eyesore.

More streets around the White House and on Capitol Hill were closed, many permanently. E Street, just south of the White House, is now a restricted parking lot, presumably for White House staffers and other employees of the executive branch. Eleven years later E Street still sports a continuous line of Jersey barriers, now streaked with rust from the metal fence on top of the barrier.

The South Lawn from E Street NW

Ironically, a city street sign on blocked section of E Street still directs the nonexistent local traffic how to navigate the area. (Presumably. the White House staffers who park there aren't that clueless about how to drive to and from work.)

Over the past decade, the "temporary" barricades of Jersey barriers and concrete planters have gradually been replaced by bollards and more permanent barricades. In fact, the relative attractiveness of the new barriers and how quickly they were constructed seems to reflect the status of the protected institution in the federal pecking order. For example, a federal court building is now encircled by a combination of metal bollards and an attractive stone wall accented by flowerbeds. (I'd guess the wall is marble, but I'm not a geologist.)

On Capitol Hill, Congress has spared no expense to barricade the Capitol Building since 9/11. A new visitors' center was built underground to limit tourists access to the Capital Building itself. In addition, lines of bollards--metal and stone--guard the Capital, the Senate and House office buildings, the Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court. Following the White House's example, several streets have been permanently closed to traffic and converted to additional parking for congressional staffers. At a moment's notice, the Capital Police can lock down the entire Hill to vehicular traffic by raising metal barriers embedded in the roads around the Capitol.

The Capitol from Independence Ave & 2nd St. SE
A stone wall and a bollard
Barrier embedded in a street on Capitol Hill

The monuments around town have also received security upgrades. For example, the Washington Monument is now ringed by a wall designed to stop anything less than a tank from approaching the base of the monument.

One of the walkways through the wall around the monument

In the Metrorail system, trash cans disappeared from the stations shortly after 9/11. The subsequent terrorist attacks in London and Madrid confirmed the wisdom of this precaution. Metrorail has since installed new trash cans that are designed to contain the explosion of any bomb explosion. More precisely, they are designed to shape the explosion so most of the force is directed upward where it will hopefully do the least harm.

This particular example of a Metro trashcan includes a sticker with the comedically ambiguous warning "If you see something, say something."  I, for one, am grateful that Metrorail passengers and employees exercised some degree of common sense in choosing not to just "say something" about my gym bag, which I accidentally left on a train. If they had, a bomb disposal unit may have exploded it out of an abundance of caution. (I have since retrieved my unexploded bag with all of its contents. Kuddos to Metrorail Lost and Found).

The new headquarters of the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) perhaps represents the logical conclusion of security architecture. Its barricades are built into the structure of the actual building. This, of course, dramatically increases the building's physical footprint and construction cost.

ATF Headquarters in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
While some "hardening" of important buildings is certainly wise, relying extensively on such defenses is clearly short-sighted. A basic principle of warfare is that no defense is impregnable, no matter how well constructed or defended. The remains of the Maginot Line, Hitler's "Fortress Europe," and Hussein's command bunkers offer some historical perspective. There is always some way to break through or go around, above, or below fixed defenses--if not launch an attack along an entirely unexpected avenue where there are no defenses. Static defenses are precisely that . . . static, and therefore unable to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions of warfare of the post-Cold War era (or any other era).

While some hardening the most obvious targets--e.g., the White House, the Capitol, and the monuments--makes sense, the continued "beautification" and expansion of the barricades throughout Washington and around the nation seem to be devolving into a combination of pork-barrel spending and fighting the last war (or the one before that). Understandably, no politician would want to vote against increasing security measures, even if they are of diminishing utility, as I suspect many of the newest barriers are. I also find it slightly troubling that a terrorist attack employing four passenger airlines spawned an outbreak of bollards and concrete barriers, which can limit a car bomb's ability to destroy a building, but do nothing to defend against an airplane.

About the photos: With the exception of the street hockey game and ATF headquarters, I took all of these photos with my cell phone on September 7, most of them on my lunch break.

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