Comments on

A Change You Can Haul Away

Original entry posted: Mon Nov 10 16:32:02 2008

Matt @ Mon Nov 10 12:25:56 2008 EST

I really have to disagree with you here.

Yes, the barriers are used to prevent attacks like the attempted car bombing at Glasgow Airport in 2007. Heaven knows we've had tons of wackos sitting in their cars around the White House threatening to blow something up. You're saying we should let them get even closer? D.C. is and always will be a target, no matter who is in the White House or Congress.

Besides the barriers are not just for preventing terrorist attacks. They also are used to keep vehicles out of pedestrian areas. If these had been used at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market in 2003, nine people wouldn't have been killed when an elderly driver plowed through the crowd. And there are plenty of pedestrians around the White House during peak tourist season. Should we let confused Maryland drivers (or the likes of Bob Novak) anywhere near a pedestrian area in downtown D.C.?

I will agree with you that the layering is a little weird, though. Are they really expecting a vehicle to get past the first set?

Thomas @ Mon Nov 10 13:31:06 2008 EST

The White House is already surrounded by a cast iron fence, if not multiple fences. Then comes a lawn that's at least a block long on all sides, as well as two flanking office buildings. At each entrance, there's either a mobile policeman or an actual manned security booth/gate. The roof is stationed by multiple snipers at all times. I suspect that there are additional points of security that aren't obvious to the average pedestrian.

How much security does one building need? How far do we let fear take us? I could extend this into hyperbole, but surely you see my point. No, I refuse to believe that there aren't better ways. Even if these roads aren't opened to vehicle traffic (and I'm not necessarily saying that they should, because I kind of like them as respectful walkways), we don't need to enshrine our fears this way, like something out of Beirut.

If these barriers were only used as methods of protecting pedestrians, it'd be a different story. But they're not typically used that way at all--the layering is a dead giveaway. In the cases where they are used for such a purpose, again, aren't there better methods? Better signage, fencing, restricting traffic completely or instituting lower speed limits? Things that don't hint at fascism, frankly?

Do you have any stats on the numbers of impatient car bombers parked outside the fence? Does anyone? If you can point to those, then I'll accept that as an argument. But if we're only speaking in hypotheticals, I refuse to be coerced by scary stories. I've had quite enough of that over the past 8 years.

And I say this as someone who spent all of Obama's acceptance speech on the edge of the couch, wishing the man would get the hell off stage in case some lunatic decided to take a shot.

There are significant portions of DC where pedestrian traffic is high year-round, and yet those areas--particularly the poor or minority-populated sections--are not protected in the same way. And frankly, their traffic situation is often a lot more screwed up than the Mall.

Matt @ Mon Nov 10 14:32:19 2008 EST

The fence surrounding the White House isn't much protection. Besides, if you have regular vehicle traffic through the area, how are snipers and police officers going to know which vehicle is particularly suspicious? It would be too late.

An unfortunate example of this is Oklahoma City. A good portion of the Federal Building was blown away because McVeigh was able to get the truck close enough before police officers asked "Hey, what's a truck doing there?" Obviously the point of the barriers is to keep an attack like that far enough away from the target that damage would be minimal. (However, you wouldn't want to be in one of the buildings surrounding the White House).

As for the stats, I would have to dig up the number of arrests made outside the White House and how many involved a suspicious vehicle or item. But I'm supposed to be working right now :)

I can't explain why other areas in D.C. where pedestrian traffic is high don't have the barriers. That's a City Council issue. But we went to Charlottesville the other weekend, and their downtown mall has barriers. Same with Colonial Williamsburg.

We'll have the barriers as long as we have crazy people/drunken or elderly drivers in the world. It's a sad fact.

On a side note: At least we aren't like Tunisia, where the president's mansion (located right next to the Antonine Baths at Carthage, a popular tourist spot) was surrounded by police officers who would wave an AK-47 at you if you got too close.

Thomas @ Mon Nov 10 15:04:04 2008 EST

" are snipers and police officers going to know which vehicle is particularly suspicious?"

I suspect that when the car comes crashing through one of those fences, it would be kind of a clue.

But this is all beside the point, which is that you're basing your reasoning on the idea that malicious bombers are rampant enough that we need to close off a significant radius around the White House in case they decide to drive in and blow the place up (the idea that an unarmed drunken/elderly driver poses a threat to the building is, frankly, laughable). I think these are not only faulty premises, but that they're also based on a kind of low-level fearmongering that has been a constant in our politics recently, and is detestable for its effect on public discourse.

It is worth noting, as the National Coalition to Save Our Mall does, that not only is the White House itself reinforced against attack, and not only are there practical options for safeguarding its grounds without closing the streets, but the building itself is farther back from traffic on any given side than almost any building in the city.

Obviously, I'm in a very different situation from the President-elect. He has more information than I do, and he has his family to protect. I trust that he'll do the right thing for them and for his family. But I reiterate: if I were in the White House, those barriers would be gone as soon as a new security plan could be drawn up.

Thomas @ Mon Nov 10 15:12:51 2008 EST

(Note, also, that the bulk of the security barriers were erected in 1995, after Oklahoma City. Yet I am informed, by reliable sources no less, that there were drunks and old people before 1995, who somehow still managed not to crash directly into the Oval Office. Food for thought.)

Matt @ Tue Nov 11 12:12:41 2008 EST

I think you misunderstood. I was making the argument that the barriers protect pedestrians, not the White House, from a drunken or elderly driver. I was just pointing out that it's common for outdoor malls to have barriers for that reason, especially outdoor malls that have bars.

And my argument is based on preventing one guy from blowing up the White House, not some imaginary, underground army of car bombers. After all, McVeigh and his co-conspirators proved that it only takes a couple of assholes, and there are plenty of assholes in this country. And plenty of racist assholes at that.

Matt @ Tue Nov 11 12:29:46 2008 EST

On a side note: I find it interesting that you're expressing an optimistic view and I'm the pessimist. Not that I think you're an overly pessimistic person (or I'm overly optimistic), but it does seem a tad like a role reversal.

I know my experience in security is laughable, but what I did learn is that the crazy things you never think would happen often do (speaking as someone who almost had their security vehicle hijacked). It's always better to be prepared and have nothing happen then to not be prepared. Maybe that was also from my experience in Boy Scouts. Who knows.

Thomas @ Tue Nov 11 13:30:46 2008 EST

The difference in our outlook may be surprising given an optimism/pessimism dichotomy, but that's not what's at work here.

The real divergence in our outlook is the degree of ideological purity. I look at the situation and say "this solution is politically and ethically unacceptable. Let's find a new solution."

You are less of a fanatic, so you look at it and say "the problem addressed by the solution is very dangerous. Let's stick with the status quo."

And then I begin the purges, comrade.

Matt @ Wed Nov 12 11:53:39 2008 EST

Fair enough.

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