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Published: Friday, 6/3/2005

Freedom's march slows a monument at a time

As we drove around the congested streets of the nation's capital searching in vain for a parking space, we couldn't help but be struck by the majestic dominance of the place. The seat of government for the most powerful nation on earth beholds sculptured evidence of its importance to awe tourists and locals alike.

The magnificent splendor of Washington's monuments cannot help but move even the most cynical of sightseers with their sweeping command of sovereignty. America the beautiful is on glorious display for all the world to see and ponder.

And yet.

The government of the people, by the people, and for the people, is becoming increasingly hands-off. It harbors suspicion of every man, woman, and child who comes too close to the physical trappings of their democracy. Those who roam too freely from famed memorials to mundane federal bureaucracies will be stopped.

And questioned.

Everything changed after 9/11, of course. No turning back to the good old days when citizens could get up close and personal with the hallmarks of their national government without signing over their firstborn for collateral. Fear of terrorism has turned freedom into a fortress.

Concrete barriers have invaded prime real estate in the capital. They confine traffic and keep people away from some of the most sought after destinations in D.C. from Capitol Hill to the White House, although pedestrians can still peek at the mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. from behind a fence.

To get inside any of the celebrated edifices of Washington requires a lot more work and, if something's amiss in the paperwork, you'll be stuck on the outside looking in. Freedom isn't on the march in the nation's capital. It's being vigorously scanned for security breaches and corralled to restricted areas as a precautionary procedure.

Layers of intimidating security measures from metal detectors to mandated photo IDs, or timed visitor passes, or pre-approved congressional admissions to House or Senate galleries, or pre-arranged appointments to federal bureaucracies, naturally discourage citizen curiosity. And it's dangerous to lose curiosity about government. But the federal government, said one writer, has figuratively if not literally hung a Do Not Enter sign on every federal edifice. The venerable Washington Monument was closed during our recent visit while it was being terrorist-proofed. Next time, no doubt, we'll observe the landmark from even farther away for security purposes.

Just another Washington attraction where access will either be tightly controlled or strictly denied to ostensibly thwart would-be terrorists. On to the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials?

It is disturbing how the erected testaments to the struggle and strength of America are being steadily walled off from Americans to protect them from terrorist attacks. That's the government line, anyway. Likewise, the government says civil liberties must be blocked to protect the country from terrorist infiltration.

America the beautiful is fast becoming America the bound. The terrorists who commandeered American jetliners nearly four years ago did more destruction to the free world than they ever dreamed possible. In the name of renewed national security the government has systematically clamped down on all sorts of freedoms previously taken for granted.

But almost four years after the catastrophic attacks in New York and Washington, have the physical restraints and constitutional infringements made U.S. citizens safer from the terrorist attacks exploding with frequency around the globe? Or, as many inside government believe, is it just a matter of time before America is wounded again?

In the summer of 2005 the intelligence community in the nation remains in disarray and woefully inefficient, like pre-9/11 days. Many heralded homeland security systems have yet to materialize, leaving the homeland as vulnerable to domestic attack as ever. The insurgency in Iraq is on fire, feeding terrorist passion who-knows-where. Afghanistan stumbles in violence with rising Taliban influence, competing warlords, and a cash crop with serious repercussions.

The Middle East convulses in anger; North Korea plays with weapons of mass destruction, and China is fast becoming a super economic power at American expense. But around the nation's capital U.S. citizens are refused access to their heritage unless they practically sign their life away and their government is on track to further limit other liberties with expansion of the Patriot Act - a misnomer if there ever was one. Have we become our own worst enemy in the war against terrorism? Go to Washington and see.



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