Keep the White House Open

Don't shut us out.

What is it about the White House that attracts the confused, the angry, the unhinged? And why, against all odds, do they so often try to penetrate the most heavily guarded residence on Earth?

The latest is a homeless Army veteran named Omar J. Gonzalez, who jumped over the White House's perimeter fence on Friday, scrambled across the North Lawn and actually made it through an unlocked door before guards stopped him. He had a knife and an urgent message for the president: "The atmosphere was collapsing."

In response, the Secret Service is now mulling even more onerous security procedures than it already has. It may prevent the public from using the sidewalk surrounding the White House, add yet more security barriers or force visitors to submit to screening a block away from the entrance.

This is a mistake.

The officers who guard the White House have elaborate measures in place to stop intruders. They didn't work very well in the case of Gonzalez, whom prosecutors say had 800 rounds of ammunition in his car. A canine team that was supposed to release a guard dog didn't; reaction time to the alarm bells was evidently slow. Even so, Gonzalez was stopped before he did any harm. A rooftop sniper reportedly had him in his sights the whole time. And President Barack Obama wasn't there -- he had taken off for Camp David minutes before -- and wouldn't have been in much danger if he was.

So while this is an incident that requires investigation, it isn't indicative of powerful new threat or a systemic security failure. Making the White House even less accessible to the public than it already is -- in reaction to an isolated intrusion by a clearly troubled man -- isn't just a matter of inconvenience. It's a matter of serious symbolic significance.

For years, the public has accepted ever-more-stringent security measures -- interminable airport lines, ubiquitous surveillance cameras, the proliferation of ugly and intrusive bollards around seemingly every public building -- in the name of preventing terrorism. The architecture of Washington, in particular, has been transformed. Even the majestic entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court, Cass Gilbert's masterpiece of civic symbolism, is now off limits to the public, who must shuffle meekly through a safer side door.

Such decisions make sense to security consultants. In aggregate, however, they project and amplify some of the worst attributes of U.S. governance in the post-Sept. 11 era. They suggest an isolated, enfeebled, defensive nation, one in which pervasive fences and security lines and metal detectors signify the expanding gap between the people and their government.

The hard truth is that no matter how high the fences, how wide the secured perimeter or how vigilant the guards, risk can never be eliminated completely -- not even for the most guarded man in the most secure house in the world. Minimizing that risk is the job of the Secret Service. For the man the agency is sworn to protect, the higher priority should be maintaining an open and democratic society.

--Editors: Timothy Lavin, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net