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November 10, 2008

Filed under: politics»national»executive

A Change You Can Haul Away

Well, the election's over. Commence endless speculation about how the Obama presidency is doomed, and will never be able to enact its socialist agenda! Will he govern from the left, or the center? How will he deal with the train wreck that's been left waiting for him?

Now I'm just some guy who works in the city, but I have a suggestion for DC's soon-to-be resident-in-chief if he wants an easy, yet bold, policy fix: get rid of the gigantic concrete security barriers surrounding the White House and blocking off Pennsylvania Avenue.

For those who don't live near the district, here's what I'm talking about:

Image by flickr user Daquella manera, used under Creative Commons license

According to Wikipedia, these kinds of concrete blocks--also known as Jersey barriers--were originally invented to minimize the chance that car accidents would cross lanes into oncoming traffic. But if you live or work in DC, you're probably used to seeing them surrounding almost every landmark in the city, as the Wikipedia article drily continues, "as a means to keep car bombs away from perceived targets."

If you see enough of these things--and that's easy enough since they are, literally, everywhere around here--it's easy to become desensitized to them. But take them out of the blind spot for a second and think about what they mean. The ubiquitous Jersey barriers are not just ugly breaks in the landscape that ruin tourist shots of DC's buildings and monuments. They're the physical embodiment of our fears. Each of those barriers is the end result of a train of thought that began with the assumption that our government is under attack from shadowy figures, and ended with fantasies of kamikaze car bombers. It's the same kind of bureacratic panic that leads to the TSA's mindless inspection theater at the airport, checking for high-tech bombs and guns even though the 9/11 hijackers carried nothing more sophisticated than boxcutters.

Now, I've heard tell that once upon a time you could actually drive past the North lawn of the White House on Penn, or the South lawn via E St, but that hasn't been true since I've lived here. Any attempt to do so is blocked by those concrete barriers and police cars. They're even layered--behind the first set, along the fences that already surrounded the building, there's another row of squat, white blocks. For a country that champions its system of representation, the effect is profoundly distancing. Pedestrians are allowed through, but you can almost see the hesitation as they cross the invisible line dividing city from citadel.

You can grow to ignore those barriers, as most of DC's regulars do. But I believe that the fear underlying their placement is not so easily ignored. It forms a pervasive atmosphere of paranoia. I don't know what that means in terms of influence, but it seems hard for me to believe that it has no effect on our policy, and it certainly impacts our image with visitors. Like airport security, the result of so much ritualized watchfulness only seems to breed more fear.

On the other hand, you can do what the Bank did, and disguise the barriers. Visit 1818 H Street today, and you won't see concrete around the World Bank Group buildings, but you will see a series of thick metal posts sunk into the concrete for the same purpose. If anything, this approach is even worse, because it institutionalizes those fears, planting them permanently in the ground, building up paranoia as infrastructure.

No, I don't think these are options that respect the dignity and the openness that lie at the core of American democracy. I don't think they represent us well. And frankly, I don't think they're necessary. Whatever results from the next four years under the new administration, there's no simpler symbol of hope and change than the removal of the barriers around the White House, if not the rest of the capital, to let the people through.

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