Immigration hawks have been having fun mocking the Obama administration’s border policies in the wake of the intruder who scaled the fence and entered the White House via the unlocked front door. One tweeter observed that it was “Really cool of the #Obama admin to demonstrate how our border security ‘works’ with an exact recreation right there at the Whitehouse.” There’s even a petition at the White House site calling on the president to be consistent and decree a unilateral executive amnesty for the undocumented visitor, complete with the right to live and work in the Executive Mansion.
But apart from the richly deserved mockery, there remains the important question of how to secure the president’s safety. The Secret Service response seems to be more of the same: Close off more streets, expand the perimeter, inconvenience more citizens. East and West Executive Avenues (flanking the White House, between it and the Treasury and Old Executive Office Buildings) were closed in World War II, Pennsylvania Avenue on the north was closed to traffic after the Oklahoma City bombing, and E Street to the south was closed after 9/11. I’m sure the Secret Service wants to close off Pennsylvania Avenue and Lafayette Park to pedestrians as well as to vehicles, though it hasn’t been able to do that yet.
It’s natural for the organization tasked with the president’s security to want to create our version of the Kremlin or the Forbidden City in downtown Washington. But the president must not simply defer to the Secret Service; that organization’s security imperative must be counterbalanced by the need for openness in what is, at least for now, still a democratic republic. As Megan McArdle notes, “We fetishize presidential security as if POTUS were some sort of sacred object rather than a job description.” And not just presidential security; while walking past the VA early one morning a few years back, I noted that then-secretary Eric Shinseki had a bodyguard — despite the fact that no more than a handful of Americans, and not a single goat-herding Islamic terrorist, could recognize him or have ever even heard of him. The problem with “security chic” is not that it interferes with normal life in downtown D.C., but rather that it’s unseemly, unnecessary, and both a symptom and an accelerator of our descent into empire.
So while the Secret Service reevaluates its procedures for stopping intruders, I propose the president push back by reopening Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. The symbolic importance of such a counterintuitive move in the wake of the intrusion would be a subtle but powerful display of confidence in our abilities and contempt for our enemies. I do not mean that security should be ignored; plans were presented in 2000 to reopen the avenue to automobiles, incorporating security features such as pedestrian bridges at 15th and 17th streets to prevent truck traffic and bowing the street to the north to put 300 additional feet between it and the White House. (The Secret Service resisted and 9/11 deep-sixed the idea.) Likewise, there may be ways to improve the fencing around the White House that preserve its open appearance and do not involve barbed wire.
But the 2000 Republican Party platform had the right idea: “We will reopen Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House as a symbolic expression of our confidence in the restoration of the rule of law.”
And to circle back to the border, our discomfort with giving in to the Secret Service’s bunker mentality is not inconsistent with the imperative to improve our still-lackadaisical immigration security. As noted on these pages, the operative principle should be “maximum liberty within a nation and maximum vigilance on the nation’s borders.”