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.”
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