"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" - Ronald Reagan, June 12, 1987
WASHINGTON — Regarding contemporary American foolishness, there really is no such thing as rock bottom. Nine weeks after the assault on the Capitol, today's president still will not say, "Speaker Pelosi and Sen. Schumer, tear down this fence!"
In normal life, when there is no penalty for failure, failures proliferate. In government, failure, far from being penalized, is often rewarded. Those whose bad judgments botched the Capitol's security on Jan. 6 now are granted seemingly unlimited deference regarding their judgments about needed security measures. Hence their infuriating project currently scarring the epicenter of American democracy: more than three miles of seven-foot-tall fencing that is topped by razor wire and patrolled by soldiers. This seals off from a phantom menace the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, symbols of liberty under law, and the reign of intelligence.
On March 4, while Senate business proceeded, the House skedaddled, having suspended its session because of rumors, a.k.a. "intelligence reports," of a second siege of the Capitol, supposedly scheduled for that day. Until 1933, March 4 had been the date for presidential inaugurations. This, some social media chatter indicated, electrified a smattering of lunatics who, for reasons too ludicrous to detain us, thought March 4 would bring the second coming of their savior, the previous president.
A tiny portion of the 330 million people in this country are stark raving mad, and their madness is reciprocated by those in charge of the national capital's security. The security providers' prescription for a better America is the same as every government agency's prescription: Spend more on what we do. Given that the government cannot say "Enough already!" regarding sugar import quotas, electric-car credits or pandemic/stimulus trillions, it will never say there can be too much spending on "security."
Is it, however, too much to ask that someone in power say aloud what everyone knows - that pursuit of the last possible increment of safety produces disproportionate measures that are embarrassing, or worse? Ron Suskind's 2006 book "The One Percent Doctrine" reported that soon after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney said (this is Suskind's paraphrasing), "If there was even a one percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction . . . the United States must now act as if it were a certainty." So, it was on to Baghdad, spurred by intelligence reports as accurate as those about March 4.
Those who could order the fence dismantled might want it there indefinitely as a prop in the security theatrics that heighten the drama surrounding Congress as it fails to perform such humdrum tasks of governing as keeping outlays and revenues within hailing distance of each other. There is, however, a cost paid in diminished national dignity and prestige, when the east end of one of the world's great urban spaces, the National Mall, resembles the seat of a banana republic's government that is suffering a nervous breakdown because of a restive tank regiment at the edge of town. And while we are speaking of the aesthetics of Washington:
In December, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., with no cliche left behind ("Today the Senate stands at the precipice of history"), accomplished the less-than-Herculean task of winning Senate approval for a National Museum of the American Latino, which the House had already passed unanimously. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, objected to yet another Smithsonian museum "based on group identity." There already are the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian, and in December Congress approved (in pandemic/stimulus legislation, naturally) a American Women's History Museum, to be "on or near" the Mall. Would it not be preferable, Lee asked, to have all such stories told by the existing National Museum of American History? Lee, Menendez thundered, "stands in the way of the hopes and dreams and aspirations of seeing Americans of Latino descent having their dreams fulfilled in being recognized" as a part of the United States' - you guessed it - "mosaic."
If the fulfillment of dreams requires that they be "recognized" with buildings on or near the Mall, near will not be near enough. In the ensuing nearer-than-thou competition, the Mall, hitherto a place of magnificent vistas, will become a moral pork barrel, a plaything of identity politics, congested with buildings erected to mollify factions who insist that the United States is not "inclusive" until their groups are included in the architectural clutter there. If such a subtraction from Washington's beauty seems fanciful, go gaze at the Capitol through the fence.