Securing the Washington Monument

Good article on security options for the Washington Monument:

Unfortunately, the bureaucratic gears are already grinding, and what will be presented to the public Monday doesn’t include important options, including what became known as the “tunnel” in previous discussions of the issue. Nor does it include the choice of more minimal visitor screening—simple wanding or visual bag inspection—that might not require costly and intrusive changes to the structure. The choice to accept risk isn’t on the table, either. Finally, and although it might seem paradoxical given how important resisting security authoritarianism is to preserving the symbolism of freedom, it doesn’t take seriously the idea that perhaps the monument’s interior should be closed altogether—a small concession that might have collateral benefits.


Closing the interior of the monument, the construction of which was suspended during the Civil War, would remind the public of the effect that fears engendered by the current war on terrorism have had on public space. Closing it as a symbolic act might initiate an overdue discussion about the loss of even more important public spaces, including the front entrance of the Supreme Court and the west terrace of the Capitol. It would be a dramatic reminder of the choices we as a nation have made, and perhaps an inspiration to change our ways in favor of a more open, risk-tolerant society that understands public space always has some element of danger.

EDITED TO ADD (11/15): More information on the decision process.

Posted on November 10, 2010 at 7:09 AM24 Comments


Clive Robinson November 10, 2010 7:47 AM

I think it can be safely said that any type of risk managment that allows even a semblance of avoidable risk is a political No No.

Thus I’m surprised that all security these days is not up to highlevel crotch grabbing TSA patdown (I wonder how long it will be before somebody aledges “digital rape” on such an intrusive pat down).

Josh S November 10, 2010 8:01 AM

More likely, the public will simply sigh and look for the remaining few places in our capital that are not closed to the public. Seems that ‘security’ is quickly making places of public good into places for the privileged few…

Otto November 10, 2010 8:46 AM

Wait, what exactly are the security concerns with regard to the monument? Is there a known threat? Are we concerned about bombers or something?

How about we focus on actual security threats instead of making them up out of whole cloth?

Dan K November 10, 2010 9:40 AM

When I saw the headline, “Securing the Washington Monument,” my first thought was naturally, “What, is someone planning to steal it?” Actually, that seems about as credible as the idea that a terrorist is going to target it in some other way.

Washingtonian November 10, 2010 9:55 AM

“The problem with all of the Park Service proposals, however, isn’t just their acceptance of security mania – that’s the default thinking everywhere in Washington …. ”

Maybe it IS just their acceptance of security mania.

I’ve been walking around the mall since I’ve been a kid. I can’t say the real risks are any greater now than back then. Even when the “crazies” visited, it was always a fun place with a backdrop of inspiration.

Now when I walk along the mall with my kids, I’m starting to get the feeling of being unwelcome — like my very presence is a threat to the ideals of Freedom symbolized by the many monuments.

SmDA November 10, 2010 10:04 AM

What bothers me about these things is they are essentially fighting small fires on the boundaries of the bigger fire. It does not stop the raging, bigger fire.

Winning the hearts and minds of our “enemies” does. That is what is most important, and it is not impossible.

But it is extremely difficult.

Increased airport security, increased security on monuments, taking away critical civil liberties (or “balancing” as some would rightly say, but that is PC still)… these things are things that hurt us all, increasing the pain put upon us by these “enemies”.

Meanwhile, building walls, fences, has some value… but persuading these people we are not their enemies and they should work in their own nations, not keeping their eyes and hate on us… should be surely… a focus, no?

Adam November 10, 2010 10:24 AM

What security will they come up with after a suicide bomber blows themselves up in the middle of the queue waiting to go through the new security gate?

BF Skinner November 10, 2010 10:41 AM

“as credible as the idea that a terrorist is going to target it ”
Well it was targeted. In the 80s, as I recall, by a man driving a white van claiming to be carrying explosives.
He was an ecology ‘extremist’ that the DC police riddled with bullets.

If they really want to protect it…bury the whole thing.

Peter A. November 10, 2010 10:43 AM

That’s nonsense. Any attacker wanting to bomb or slaughter unsuspecting people with a katana would do it as easily in any other public park, street, building, or elevator. No need to go to Washington, DC. And there are lots of places out there that have more visitors present at any given time.

Or are they afraid someone’s going to destroy the Monument itself? This would require a shitload of explosives and a truck or two. A random ass-bomber is not going to achieve that.

BF Skinner November 10, 2010 10:46 AM

Our calculation usually goes like this…
Define an asset
Harden the likely targets
The harder you make the target the more likely you can divert a terrorist act to a softer target.

So if the government spends all it’s time and money hardening official and quasi-official structures and systems…doesn’t that logically mean they are deliberately increasing the risk to civilian populations, structures and systems? (who don’t have the money to harden their own assets)
As long as the terrorist threat is low or unreal I guess it’s only a waste of money better spent elsewhere but if it were real (like the IRA was real to England) threat…doesn’t that make the US government using it’s own population as a shield or cannon fodder?

mcb November 10, 2010 10:58 AM

If We the People want to make certain nothing happens at the Washington monument we’d better cast the whole thing in a block of acrylic. Then the Park Service can claim total security, and ownership of the world’s largest paper weight.

Existing precautions do a satisfactory and aesthetically pleasing job of keeping vehicle borne improvised explosive devices away so the structure itself is reasonably protected.

In the absence of a specific and time constrained threat against visitors to the obelisk there is no reason to do a better job detecting man-portable threats at this monument (or others) than at other large public gathering spaces in the District.

Kyle Rose November 10, 2010 11:00 AM

I’m all for anything that makes the federal government seem even more remote and out-of-touch with the rest of America. People need to start thinking of the Feds as “them” rather than “us”.

Brad Wheeler November 10, 2010 11:19 AM

Can anyone name a terrorist attack in the United States that security measures like these would’ve prevented? No, because none have ever happened. Would a glass security pavilion have stopped McVeigh from car-bombing a Federal building? Would it have stopped the events of September 11th? Would they even prevent IRA-style bombings? Of course not. But to do nothing opens the politicians to an entirely different form of attack: that they’re soft on terrorism. And that’s still an extremely bad sound bite in DC.

It’s been said before, but it would be interesting (in a strictly academic way) to see the official response to a suicide bomber in the line waiting to get into the monument.

RH November 10, 2010 11:37 AM

@Kyle Rose: I don’t know how I feel about your “them” vs “us” issue. It does seem to touch on the lack of nuances to our English pronouns.

When one becomes elected, do they cease to be “us” and become “them?”

Honestly, the best thing to do is stop caring about symbols that are just symbols, and start caring about symbols that carry weight… like one of our Carrier groups. When was the last time the mere presence of the Washington Monument altered national politics in a whole region of the world.

Doug Coulter November 10, 2010 12:03 PM

Haven’t been to the monument in a long time, but I know back in the day there was one moderately legit worry; a movie plot threat then and now, of course.

What a perfectly nice place to have say, a .50 cal sniper rifle or a guided antitank missile, assuming you could move the normal crowd out of your way (perhaps using those or other weapons).

Nice view up there of a lot of “sensitive” places/targets. Including where the lawmakers tend to hang out.

It’s not much of a target itself, but it makes other ones a whole lot easier to hit.

Dr. Paul Johnson November 10, 2010 12:10 PM

I was just in DC for the marine corps marathon which happened to be days after the recent threats in town. You could certainly feel the heightened security as there were numerous people carrying M16s near the start – adjacent to the Pentagon. Certainly agree with the prior poster about the dangers of a sniper up in the monument. What a nightmare.

Guy November 10, 2010 2:35 PM

There is no threat here that’s great enough to justify more than some uniformed officers at the door:

1) Bringing weapons to hurt people in the monument — not densely populated enough to be worth it. 99.999% of the U.S. is already subject to this threat.

2) Bringing a sniper rifle to wholesale attack political figures or the general populace — for political figures, you only get one or two shots, and it is easier if they pick some other position. For the general populace, a fixed position like that is an obvious source, will guarantee the sniper is captured or killed, and would allow civilians to take cover. One or two uniformed officers to stop and search people bringing long packages is enough to deter this.

3) bombing of the monument — symbolic, but it would cause relatively few casualties. Better that terrorists blow up the washington monument than pick a more densely populated target. We can easily rebuild the monument, but can’t replace the additional lives lost if the terrorist were to pick a softer, more densely-packed target.

Adrian November 10, 2010 3:39 PM

Clearly the time has come to take action. Leave the US to it’s paranoid delusions and simply refuse to visit. Once these ineffective security measures are seen to be hittring the bottom dollar in the form of reduced tourism costs, maybe someone will pay attention.

Yes, I’m in Australia, and YES, I’m terrified of my country being brainwashed into mimicing yours.

Davi Ottenheimer November 10, 2010 5:34 PM

For those wondering why the Washington Monument I’m pretty sure the answer is found in the US Critical Infrastructure Plan. It calls for protection of monuments under the Department of the Interior.

Updated version here:

Presidential Decision Directive 63 in 1998 (Clinton) started this process. So it has been a long time coming although, from these news stories, one might get the impression they just started yesterday.

xxx November 11, 2010 9:40 AM


The Washington Monument is NOT critical infrastructure.

Sure, the American people have a fair amount of attachment to it. And sure, some low level bureaucrat would lose his job if the tourists blew up the Washington Monument.

But the Washington Monument is not a power plant. It’s not a water purification plant. It’s not even a sewage treatment plant…. It’s not critical infrastructure.

Pretending that it is critical infrastructure ought to be considered an insult to the basic good sense of the American people.

Doug Coulter November 12, 2010 7:11 PM


Obviously, you’ve not read a few things that are relevant here. Try John Plaster’s sniper books for how effective one or two men can be in a good position. And that position is nothing short of fantastic. You going to be first in line charging up the stairs to get that guy? Assume they have enough brains to farble the elevator — or just wait for the doors to open…or not, and shoot responders through the door.

Read Bruce’s comments on how hard to stop someone is who is planning to die anyway. Remember, some terrorists work like that.

Even in Iraq, some snipers in minarets lasted quite awhile, until a tank was available to blow the building down — which we’d prefer not to do in any case. Incidents in this country, Texas tower shooter — the cops didn’t know how to account for aiming at steep up angles and missed for hours before getting the guy. HoJo shooter, similar situation, took hours to get the guy.

No one said anything about wholesale (assassinating one major figure would cause a stir, eh? People still talk about Kennedy.), but you’d get a heck of a lot of shots off before people even realized where they were coming from, and one wire guided missile does wholesale damage in one shot. Disable a few vehicles to make approach harder while you’re at it. Easy enough in rush hour.

Again, a total move-plot threat, but at least let’s acknowledge the possibility that someone has watched some movies and gotten an idea here and there. Most movie plot threats are much more ridiculous than that one.

Did you know the army has a real hard on about keeping those nice antitank missiles guarded for just this reason? I was read this scenario by an Army guy we were doing contract security work for (designing low false-alarm systems). In 1972.
Ft Belvoir. MERADCOM.

It’s very not a new idea.

DaveK November 17, 2010 10:56 AM

If we’re on the subject of movie plot threats, how about the simple “big suicide bomb on one side of the exterior” plot? Screening visitors to the interior does squat to prevent that.

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