J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Closing the Washington Monument?

This is a curious proposal from Bruce Schneier, computer security and cryptography expert, published last month in the New York Daily News:

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.
Within the federal government, the Washington Monument has given its name to a particular budget tactic. According to legend, years ago Park Service managers would submit a budget to Congress with no money for opening the monument at the height of the tourist season. Those managers could therefore use their testimony to the budget committees to advocate for funds for less visible things (which may or may not have been necessary), knowing that Congress would add enough funds to keep the monument open or face public complaints.

Schneier seems to be trying a non-budgetary form of the “Washington Monument Ploy,” using public access to that site as a way to force the government and the nation (i.e., us) to consider what workable security means. Schneier is known within the computer-security field for formulating concepts like “security theater” and “failing well.”


Brutus said...

Fear Marketing...typical M.O. of bureaucrats and liberals in general...

J. L. Bell said...

Bruce Schneier isn’t a bureaucrat. I don’t know about his politics, though he’s written a lot on security issues.

The last decades in the U.S. produced an awful lot of rhetoric aimed at raising fear from the Bush-Cheney administration and their conservative supporters, in and out of government. So your comment looks like baseless grumbling from behind the protection of a pseudonym. But thanks for demonstrating your outlook.

Peter Ansoff said...

I'm pretty sure that Mr. Schneier's intent was to make a sarcastic comment about Congressional leadership, rather than a serious proposal.

The knee-jerk comment by "Brutus" is amusing. If anything, Mr. Schneier is *criticizing* the "bureaucrats and liberals" for their lack of leadership.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, like the “Washington Monument ploy,” I think this was an attempt to wake people up to realities by asking, “Is this what you really want?”

And by “people” I think he really means us, the voters. The National Park Service answers to Congress, and Congress answers to voters, and neither the N.P.S. nor Congress is ready to accept anything less than 100% security unless we voters are able to accept that.

Brutus tried to blame one part of the political spectrum even after the right has run its last several elections on security. That suggests that at least some of us wouldn’t be able to accept a limited security breach without trying to cast blame on who “allowed it to happen.”

Jan said...

"after the right has run its last several elections on security"

Surely not! Democrats are always the one hanging the sword of fear over the voters' heads. I'm positive I remember Jimmy Carter running the "bear in the woods" commercial in the 1984 campaign, and John Kerry threatening us with wolves and saying "terrorism" and "9/11" every other sentence in 2004...

(dislodges tongue from cheek)