The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

Closing off Pennsylvania Ave.: 1995 and a psychology of fear


Pennsylvania Avenue, near the White House: Looking bleak

The uglying-up of the nation’s capital in the name of security and terrorism-prevention can be traced to 20 years ago this week when, without warning, a two-block section of Pennsylvania Avenue nearest the White House was abruptly closed to vehicular traffic.

The move was taken early on May 20, 1995, a month after of the deadly truck bombing at Oklahoma City in April 1995; it was intended to thwart other, would-be terrorists from targeting the White House.

Resistance to the sudden move was vigorous but ineffectual. To this day, that stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue is off-limits to vehicles (except for police vans and the like); it bears the look of a closed-off street masquerading as a pedestrian mall.

A barrier-studded, uninviting pedestrian mall (see photo).

Closing sections of Pennsylvania Avenue — America’s Main Street, as it’s sometimes called — was, I write in my latest book, 1995: The Year Future Began, emblematic of a nascent, yet powerful, “security-first mindset” that emphasized precaution and gained ascendancy after the attack at Oklahoma City.

The bombing, which killed 168 people and injured more than 600 others, was, I write, “a turning point in domestic security and security precautions for Americans.” The attack helped to mold the now-familiar, hyper-cautious, security-first mindset — a psychology of fear that has found expression in a variety of restrictive measures aimed at warding off a terrorist attack.

The case of Pennsylvania Avenue signaled the emergence of the capital as bunker, I also note in 1995. Several streets near the Capitol were similarly closed to vehicular traffic in the summer of 1995. Concrete planters and Jersey barriers went up near government buildings in Washington and beyond.

“An architecture of defensiveness became plainly visible in the capital, and its trappings—the barriers and the steel gates—have lent a shabby look to the avenues in the heart of Washington,” I write in 1995.

It’s a bleak and disheartening look that can be traced to 1995.

“It was the Oklahoma City bombing,” the Washington Post observed a few years ago, “that ended the capital’s life as an open city. Suddenly, driving into a garage involved guards wielding mirrors to inspect car bottoms. Jersey barriers undid the designs of landscapers and architects. An architecture of fear came into vogue.”

Cutting off Pennsylvania Avenue set off an intense debate in which the Post figured fairly prominently.

The newspaper declared the closure “a concession to terrorism that should not be made permanent,” adding:

“Two world wars did not close Pennsylvania Avenue. Neither did the Civil War or past attempts on presidents’ lives. . . . The avenue stayed open despite a British invasion, and despite street riots in the 1960s. But now, because of the devastation in Oklahoma City, the history of Pennsylvania Avenue may be erased by bulldozers.”

(The Post further noted, as did political leaders in the District, that Pennsylvania Avenue was a major traffic artery in downtown Washington and closing the two-block section promised significant traffic problems.)

In a commentary for the Post, Rod Grams, then a Republican U.S. senator from Minnesota, urged President Bill Clinton to order Pennsylvania Avenue reopened to traffic. “We must not allow fear to claim the victory,” Grams wrote. “Dismantle the barricades, Mr. President, and may the souls of the patriots who founded this nation in freedom’s name take pity on us if we don’t.”

Clinton, for his part, likened blocking off a portion of Pennsylvania Avenue to installing metal detectors at airports, saying was “a responsible security step necessary to preserve our freedom, not part of a long-term restriction of our freedom,” the New York Times reported.

Clinton also said the closing was necessitated by “the changing nature and scope of the threat of terrorist actions.”

Interestingly, the move had the effect of making the Executive Mansion seem more fortresslike, and the president seem even more remote, “more deeply ensconced within a security cocoon,” I write in 1995.

Not only that, but closing the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue nearest the White House arguably did not make the president’s mansion all the more safe.

Just three days after the traffic-blocking barriers went up on Pennsylvania Avenue, a 37-year-old man carrying an unloaded handgun scaled an eight-foot fence at the White House,raced across the lawn before he encountered Secret Service officers. He scuffled with one of them and was being shot, wounded, and subdued. The intruder was identified as Leland William Modjeski, a former pizza deliveryman who once was a PhD. student in psychology.

He reportedly shouted after scaling the fence: “I’m here to see the President.”


More from The 1995 blog:

37 comments on “Closing off Pennsylvania Ave.: 1995 and a psychology of fear

  1. Pingback: ‘The Internet Tidal Wave,’ 20 years on | The 1995 Blog

  2. Pingback: Bob Dole, Hollywood, and ‘the mainstreaming of deviancy,’ 1995 | The 1995 Blog

  3. Pingback: Downed pilot eludes Serbs: When Americans took notice of Bosnia | The 1995 Blog

  4. Pingback: When Secret Service officers wore rubber gloves to greet gay officials | The 1995 Blog

  5. Pingback: The 1995 massacre at Srebrenica and its effects on U.S. policy | The 1995 Blog

  6. Pingback: Predator drone down — over Bosnia, 20 years ago | The 1995 Blog

  7. Pingback: When war in Bosnia reached the beginning of its end | The 1995 Blog

  8. Pingback: Defying critics to publish the Unabomber ‘Manifesto’ | The 1995 Blog

  9. Pingback: Million Man March: Controversial rally in a watershed year | The 1995 Blog

  10. Pingback: The UN at 50: Palaver, pomposity, and the newspaper ‘lead’ of the year, 1995 | The 1995 Blog

  11. Pingback: Spoofing her majesty in the ‘Great Royal Phone Embarrassment’ of 1995 | The 1995 Blog

  12. Pingback: Amid suspicion and disdain, Dayton peace talks on Bosnia opened 20 years ago | The 1995 Blog

  13. Pingback: Downer doc: Richard Holbrooke recalled on HBO | The 1995 Blog

  14. Pingback: Closing government sows scandal: When Clinton met Monica | The 1995 Blog

  15. Pingback: Bosnian war ended at Dayton 20 years ago; U.S. ‘hubris bubble’ swelled soon after | The 1995 Blog

  16. Pingback: Looking back at a watershed year: 1995 in blog posts | The 1995 Blog

  17. Pingback: The crowded closing day of 1995 | The 1995 Blog

  18. Pingback: Beyond impeachment: The penalties Bill Clinton paid | The 1995 Blog

  19. Pingback: Lewinsky affair, begun in 1995, hovers over presidential campaign 21 years later | The 1995 Blog

  20. Pingback: The mixed lessons of the Dayton accords, 21 years on | The 1995 Blog

  21. Pingback: PBS doc on OKC bombing signals anew the significance of 1995 | The 1995 Blog

  22. Pingback: PBS doc on OKC bombing pushes hard on vague, distant connections | The 1995 Blog

  23. Pingback: Timeless lessons of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing | The 1995 Blog

  24. Pingback: The smears Lewinsky ignores | The 1995 Blog

  25. Pingback: CNN series gives kitchen-sink treatment to the ’90s | The 1995 Blog

  26. Pingback: Ick alert? TV dramatizations of Clinton-Lewinsky scandal airing or in works | The 1995 Blog

  27. Pingback: ‘Just because I could’: Would Bill Clinton survive Lewinsky scandal these days? Not likely | The 1995 Blog

  28. Pingback: HLN’s oddly timed Clinton-Lewinsky rehash notable for what it left out | The 1995 Blog

  29. Pingback: Remembering Bill Clinton’s finger-wagging denial-lie, 20 years on | The 1995 Blog

  30. Pingback: ‘Othering’ and the 1995 OKC bombing: Wiping away McVeigh? | The 1995 Blog

  31. Pingback: Rambling nostalgia: WETA’s ‘Washington in the ’90s’ documentary | The 1995 Blog

  32. Pingback: Fat new Holbrooke biography sheds little fresh insight on 1995 Dayton peace accords | The 1995 Blog

  33. Pingback: Recalling a senator’s ill-timed ’95 announcement for president | The 1995 Blog

  34. Pingback: Recalling John Doe No. 2, phantom suspect of the 1995 OKC bombing | The 1995 Blog

  35. Pingback: Chuck Todd’s bad impeachment analogy | The 1995 Blog

  36. Pingback: With us still: 1995, 25 years on | The 1995 Blog

  37. Pingback: 25 years on: Remembering the OKC bombing — and how the media erred | The 1995 Blog

Comments are closed.


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

%d bloggers like this: