Close the Washington Monument

By Bruce Schneier
December 2, 2010

A heavily edited version of this essay appeared in The New York Daily News.

Securing the Washington Monument from terrorism has turned out to be a surprisingly difficult job. The concrete fence around the building protects it from attacking vehicles, but there's no visually appealing way to house the airport-level security mechanisms the National Park Service has decided are a must for visitors. It is considering several options, but I think we should close the monument entirely. Let it stand, empty and inaccessible, as a monument to our fears.

An empty Washington Monument would serve as a constant reminder to those on Capitol Hill that they are afraid of the terrorists and what they could do. They're afraid that by speaking honestly about the impossibility of attaining absolute security or the inevitability of terrorism -- or that some American ideals are worth maintaining even in the face of adversity -- they will be branded as "soft on terror." And they're afraid that Americans would vote them out of office if another attack occurred. Perhaps they're right, but what has happened to leaders who aren't afraid? What has happened to "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself"?

An empty Washington Monument would symbolize our lawmakers' inability to take that kind of stand -- and their inability to truly lead.

Some of them call terrorism an "existential threat" against our nation. It's not. Even the events of 9/11, as horrific as they were, didn't make an existential dent in our nation. Automobile-related fatalities -- at 42,000 per year, more deaths each month, on average, than 9/11 -- aren't, either. It's our reaction to terrorism that threatens our nation, not terrorism itself. The empty monument would symbolize the empty rhetoric of those leaders who preach fear and then use that fear for their own political ends.

The day after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to blow up a Northwest jet with a bomb hidden in his underwear, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said "The system worked." I agreed. Plane lands safely, terrorist in custody, nobody injured except the terrorist. Seems like a working system to me. The empty monument would represent the politicians and press who pilloried her for her comment, and Napolitano herself, for backing down.

The empty monument would symbolize our war on the unexpected, -- our overreaction to anything different or unusual -- our harassment of photographers, and our probing of airline passengers. It would symbolize our "show me your papers" society, rife with ID checks and security cameras. As long as we're willing to sacrifice essential liberties for a little temporary safety, we should keep the Washington Monument empty.

Terrorism isn't a crime against people or property. It's a crime against our minds, using the death of innocents and destruction of property to make us fearful. Terrorists use the media to magnify their actions and further spread fear. And when we react out of fear, when we change our policy to make our country less open, the terrorists succeed -- even if their attacks fail. But when we refuse to be terrorized, when we're indomitable in the face of terror, the terrorists fail -- even if their attacks succeed.

We can reopen the monument when every foiled or failed terrorist plot causes us to praise our security, instead of redoubling it. When the occasional terrorist attack succeeds, as it inevitably will, we accept it, as we accept the murder rate and automobile-related death rate; and redouble our efforts to remain a free and open society.

The grand reopening of the Washington Monument will not occur when we've won the war on terror, because that will never happen. It won't even occur when we've defeated al Qaeda. Militant Islamic terrorism has fractured into small, elusive groups. We can reopen the Washington Monument when we've defeated our fears, when we've come to accept that placing safety above all other virtues cedes too much power to government and that liberty is worth the risks, and that the price of freedom is accepting the possibility of crime.

I would proudly climb to the top of a monument to those ideals.

New York Daily News Version

Securing the Washington Monument from terrorism has turned out to be a surprisingly difficult job. The concrete fence around the building protects it from attacking vehicles, but there's no visually appealing way to house the airport-level security mechanisms the National Park Service has decided are a must for visitors. It is considering several options. Four would require a belowground entrance to the monument; the fifth would create an aboveground pavilion. All would detract from the clean lines a visitor sees on the current approach.

Instead of any of these, I think we should close the monument entirely. Let it stand, empty and inaccessible, as a monument to our fears.

The Statue of Liberty has been the center of similar security discussions. It was closed entirely after 9/11; then, Liberty Island was reopened, but there was no access to the statue itself. It wasn't until last year that visitors were again allowed to climb to the crown.

An empty Washington Monument would serve as a constant reminder to those on Capitol Hill that they are afraid of the terrorists and what they could do. They're afraid that by speaking honestly about the impossibility of attaining absolute security or the inevitability of terrorism - or that some American ideals are worth maintaining even in the face of adversity - they will be branded as "soft on terror." And they're afraid that Americans would vote them out of office if another attack occurred.

An empty Washington Monument would symbolize our lawmakers' inability to truly lead.

Some of them call terrorism an "existential threat" to our nation. It's not. Automobile-related fatalities - at 42,000 a year, more deaths each month, on average, than 9/11 - aren't, either. It's our reaction to terrorism that threatens America, not terrorism itself.

The day after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Northwest jet with a bomb hidden in his underwear, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said, "The system worked." I agreed. Plane lands safely, terrorist in custody, nobody injured except the terrorist: Seems like a working system to me. But politicians and journalists pilloried her for the comment (conservative critic Michelle Malkin, for example, showed Napolitano with a Photoshopped clown nose), and Napolitano backed down.

The empty monument would symbolize our war on the unexpected, our harassment of photographers and our probing of airline passengers. It would symbolize our "show me your papers" society, rife with ID checks and security cameras. As long as we're willing to sacrifice liberties for temporary safety, we should keep the Washington Monument empty.

Terrorism is, foremost, a crime against our minds, using the death of innocents and destruction of property to make us fearful. And when we react out of fear, when we change our policy to make our country less open, the terrorists succeed - even if their attacks fail. But when we're indomitable in the face of terror, the terrorists fail - even if their attacks succeed.

We can reopen the monument when every foiled or failed terrorist plot causes us to praise our security, instead of redoubling it. When the occasional terrorist attack succeeds, as it inevitably will, we must fight to remain an open society. Like Israel, we must learn to mourn, move on and rebuild.

The grand reopening of the Washington Monument will not occur when we've won the war on terror, because that will never happen. It won't even occur when we've defeated Al Qaeda: Militant Islamic terrorism has fractured into small, elusive groups. We can reopen the Washington Monument when we've defeated our fears, when we've come to accept that placing safety above all other virtues cedes too much power to government and that liberty is worth the risks.

I would proudly climb to the top of a monument to these ideals.

earlier essay: The Dangers of a Software Monoculture
later essay: Why the TSA Can't Back Down
categories: National Security Policy, Terrorism
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Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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