Starting in November, Arlington National Cemetery will be phasing in “enhanced security measures,” including mandatory screening of everyone who walks into the facility.
Cemetery officials announced the new security plan on Sept. 12, a day after the 15th anniversary of the worst terrorist attacks in the nation’s history. Back then, President George W. Bush urged us “to be calm and resolute, even in the face of a continuing threat.” A decade and a half later, we’re building fear of that threat into our lives instead.
As a tour guide, I’m a bit jaded by this quest for security. Every year brings a new closure, a new checkpoint, a little less freedom than the year before. Every change makes tour guides’ jobs a little more difficult — which is fine — and the visitors’ experience at some of the capital’s most popular places a little less meaningful — which is not.
This is not an isolated case of security creep. Last year, without fanfare or media interest, the major Smithsonian museums on the Mall instituted a similar level of full screening. Before then, a guard used to conduct a quick bag check when people entered museums. Now all items have to be removed from pockets, bags are subject to a more thorough search and all visitors must go through metal detectors.
On paper, and to an administrator not dealing with the practical repercussions of such a change, these may seem like small and necessary steps. Those of us who guide people around Washington every day, however, understand that the security has significantly altered the visitors’ experience. The first, and often only, interaction a young student has with a Smithsonian professional is when a security guard starts barking orders at them. Before the new screening rules, a wait of more than five minutes to get into a museum was surprising. Now, waiting for 30 minutes is normal, and an hour-long wait isn’t unheard of. Those waits take place outside the museums, no matter what the weather is, and water fountains and restrooms are all on the other side of security. So for the past year, instead of bubbling with excitement over seeing the first ladies’ dresses and the Star Spangled Banner, my students have returned from museums with tales of how bad the security process was. I do this job because I love showing our young people what makes the nation great. Showing off long lines for metal detectors instead is dispiriting.
The changes at Arlington National Cemetery may end up being even worse.
The cemetery already does a mediocre job of handling large groups. The visitor center is poorly designed for the flow of people. Part of the problem is bureaucracy: The cemetery is owned by one agency, the Army; accessed through roads controlled by another, the National Park Service; and operated by a web of civilian contractors who mow the grass, manage the parking lots and provide security. These entities often fail to communicate well with one another and provide inconsistent and fragmented instructions to guides and visitors. Adding a layer of security similar to what the Smithsonian instituted last year is unlikely to improve that status quo.
Many of the cemetery’s 3 million to 4 million visitors a year come as school groups, especially in the busy spring tour season. Groups generally attempt to come first thing in the morning to maximize their time in Washington and beat the heat. It’s not unusual for tour buses to be backed up on Memorial Drive waiting for the gates to open and for the lot to be full by 8:15 a.m. That means more than 40 55-passenger buses discharging 2,000 people in half an hour — and there are only four security lines to screen them. To check that many people in an hour, guards would have to process visitors at a rate of eight seconds per person, with no breaks or backups. It’s quite possible that an hour-long wait becomes the norm for entrance in the mornings.
None of that will do anything to make people safer. The cemetery is nearly a square mile, with plenty of hiding spaces, and only a three-foot-high wall protects it for much of the perimeter. Concentrating tourists in an unprotected and dense waiting area easily accessible by unscreened vehicles could actually make them a better target for would-be terrorists than visitors are now.
But let’s say this does make us more secure. And let’s say the Army manages to smoothly implement these enhanced measures with a minimum of fuss and get people into the cemetery quickly for a contemplative, respectful visit. It would still be wrong.
I have no idea if terrorists want to target Arlington National Cemetery, and for all that we spend on intelligence, I don’t know whether national security officials do, either. It’s an outdoor venue, with little intrinsic vulnerability. In peak seasons, President John F. Kennedy’s tomb and the Tomb of the Unknowns can have substantial crowds, but the cemetery generally has less tourist density than say, the Lincoln Memorial. It is certainly much less crowded than nearby Pentagon City Mall.
But if the cemetery is a target, it’s not because of the body count, but because of its symbolic value.
Symbols are important in a democracy, and they matter especially here. Is the Tomb of the Unknowns a hunk of marble with some bones under it, or is it an enduring symbol of Americans who gave not only their lives, but their very identities for our country? Is Kennedy’s Eternal Flame a natural gas pipe with a fire at the end, or is it a symbol of a bold and visionary president whose life was tragically cut short? Either we believe these things matter beyond their mere physical presence, or we do not. There is no middle ground.
So if we hide them — if we say that only people who have been screened can walk up that hill to bear witness, that there is a presumption that until you’ve been searched, you’re too dangerous to be allowed near these symbols — we send a different kind of message. We can hide behind euphemisms such as “enhanced security,” but visitors, from my busload of eighth-graders all the way up to the last World War II vets visiting their long-dead comrades, won’t find their experience enhanced. They will see a country where the forms and symbols of security have replaced the forms and symbols of freedom and openness.
I’ve seen this trend grow in the near decade I’ve been a guide. As we ride the bus from site to site, I used to discuss what we would see at the next stop, giving interesting anecdotes about famous and not so famous historical events that happened there. No more. Now, it’s a constant litany of security preparations. Belts come off at this one, no bags at that one, and so on. It creeps up little by little, until you realize that your job is basically to escort kids through security checkpoints. By the third day of a class trip to Washington, it has become a weary game for all of us. It’s grinding, and their take away from their visit is all too often a sense that their capital is unsafe, to be protected endlessly by armed guards.
This is particularly sad for a place such as Arlington National Cemetery. Here we can, without cynicism, say we see the price others paid for our free and open society. This is the final resting place of those who didn’t take the safe route, who said there was something more important than personal security. To take away freedom and openness strips away that sacrifice and makes those words hollow, punch lines in a national mythology that’s increasingly difficult to recite with a straight face.
We need to stand up and say, yes, there is a risk. Yes, a terrorist could choose this place to write their warped message in blood. But I can choose to be afraid, or I can choose to go about my life.
There will never be a point where we will be completely secure. There is a point where a quest for security compromises our bedrock principles. Arlington National Cemetery and the Army have brought us a step closer to that point.