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Published on January 30, 2021 2:29 AM

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Protecting Democracy at the Cost of Projecting Democracy
More than a century and a half later, years and events – everything from the shooting deaths of two U.S. Capitol Police officers and the Oklahoma City bombing to 9/11 – have closed the security perimeter around buildings that define American democracy around the world.

The Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol has federal officials in Washington, D.C., mulling a more drastic and visually dramatic tactic – making permanent the high fences installed around the Capitol area to ensure safety for President Joe Biden's inauguration. And experts wonder: Is protecting democracy worth the damage done to projecting democracy?

"We don't negotiate with terrorists. We don't let terrorists change our lives," says Colin Clarke, director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consultancy. Even after 9/11, people adjusted to new security rules, such as removing shoes when going through security at the airport, Clarke says, but the nation did not block off its very symbols of American life and governance.

"This strikes me as a base of overkill," says Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on defense and national security. "Some degree of a larger controlled perimeter with tasteful barriers and controlled access makes sense. A fence does not, unless the chatter is far more foreboding about another imminent attack than I have surmised.

"It is the people's house, after all," O'Hanlon adds.

Unlike the White House, the Capitol houses a wide array of people – lawmakers, staff, lobbyists, journalists and tourists. Democrats and Republicans are in each other's faces all the time, unlike the single-party White House, making it impossible for them to not at least hear the other side's views. Reporters can simply walk up to lawmakers in many parts of the building to ask questions.

And while the environment inside the ornate building can often get tense and heated, it has always had an aura of openness, sending a signal to the world that America is a democracy where leaders hear from citizens. High fencing, critics say, undermines that image.

For the moment, the high fencing erected for the inaugural is still standing, preventing local Washingtonians from a favorite pastime, jogging or bicycling around the Capitol. The continued – though temporary – presence of National Guard troops in the nation's capital has lent a militarized vibe unwelcome to many locals as well as members of Congress who work here.

he acting Capitol Police chief, Yogananda Pittman, has recommended keeping the fencing intact, an idea vehemently opposed by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and some members of Congress in both parties.

That's a common clash politicians have with law enforcement and security forces, the latter group wanting to avoid a tragedy – or at least be on record having called for more security if a violent security breach does occur. Elected officials, meanwhile, are cognizant of the importance of being accessible to voters – or at least appearing to be accessible.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who already has installed metal detectors at the doors of the House chamber, angering lawmakers who want to bring their guns onto the floor, has ordered an outside review of Capitol security. Money to pay for any permanent fencing would require a congressional appropriation.

But such a fence – even if the project passed those hurdles – could do more harm than good, experts say.