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 Cato Institute's Briefing Papers, 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?
Third, it's essential that our leaders exhibit courage. During the Cold War days of 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated, some in the administration thought it was the start of a coup. If that were the case, Lyndon Johnson would be the next target. But when Jackie Kennedy said she intended to walk from the White House to the funeral, President Lyndon Johnson helped lead the procession that marched through the streets of downtown Washington.
During last week's commemoration of V-J day, I thought about American responses to loss of life in Iraq compared to yesteryear's American response to loss of life in the Pacific. Taking Iwo Jima cost 7,000 American lives and thousands wounded. Okinawa cost the lives of 5,000 sailors, 7,600 soldiers and thousands more wounded. There were no calls to cut and run and no political attacks on Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. Instead, those losses stiffened the backbone and resolve of the American people. But of course, back then, common sense prevailed. We hadn't become feminized and turned into a nation of wimps and nervous Nellies.
I'd like to see our political leaders adopt the character of their predecessors and say that we're not going to sacrifice liberties and cower in the face of our new enemy; we're going to kill him.
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.