Walter E. Williams

Driving through downtown Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago, I asked myself: What's happened to the character of the American people? There were barricaded landmarks, armed guards and people waiting to be searched. Several weeks ago, I visited downtown Philadelphia in the vicinity of Independence Hall. Again there were barricades, armed guards and visitors waiting in line.

 During the 1940s, my cousin and I, carrying our shoeshine boxes, simply walked in and stood before the room where the Declaration of Independence was adopted and the U.S. Constitution was signed. The only barrier was a velvet-covered rope. Much of today's security measures are little more than a panicked response to terrorism and not likely to ever go away because Americans are coming to accept it as normal.

 Melanie Scarborough's article "The Security Pretext," in the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute's Briefing Papers (June 29, 2005), argues that Americans haven't always panicked in the face of attack. British troops burned the White House in 1814. Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. In more recent times, the Statue of Liberty has been taken over by Puerto Rican nationalists, Attica Brigade, and Vietnam Veterans Against the War (twice). The Black Liberation Front attempted to blow up the statue in 1964. Since 1915, bombs have been detonated in the Capitol three times with no injuries or structural catastrophe. Scarborough writes, "Terrorists have already hit our national monuments. The difference is that after those attacks, the government did not respond with hysteria."

 In an October 2001 interview, Osama bin Laden boasted, "I tell you, freedom and human rights in America are doomed. The United States government will lead the American people into an unbearable hell and a choking life." Government security measures haven't yet produced an "unbearable hell and a choking life," but with all the emerging restrictions on our liberty, we can safely say we're headed in that direction. The late Sen. Patrick Moynihan warned, "Terrorism succeeds when people become terrified."

 Scarborough says the war against terrorism is in large part a war against fear. To win, three things are critically needed. First, Americans must realize that we cannot produce, nor would most Americans want, an environment that is totally free from the risk of terrorist attack. Second, improving security is important, but we must weigh the costs against the benefits of each measure. A minor example: Engineers have testified that the Washington Monument, with its 15-foot thick walls, is virtually immune to destruction by hand-carried bombs. Therefore, how wise is it to spend millions protecting it against hand-carried bombs?

Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
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