Restore balance of liberty, security

For the past three years, I have been honored to serve as an instructor for a summer learning experience for high school students. The program, which takes place in Washington, brings together more than 100 high school juniors from across the country to learn about American history, politics and civics by combining classroom instruction with day trips to American political and historical landmarks.

While the program has been extremely successful, participating students have repeatedly expressed shock and dismay over the inaccessibility of America’s national institutions.

At many venues, the number of armed guards seems to exceed the number of tourists and metal detectors and security checkpoints greet visitors at nearly all the major buildings (and flash cameras are greeted with the same warmth as liquids on an airplane).

Our most recent visit to the Capitol consisted of access to only the Rotunda and Statuary Hall (it was not clear why the Old Senate Chamber was off limits), as well as the new visitors center. Access to the Senate and House galleries is now only granted when Congress is in session and visitors must obtain passes from senators or representatives.

Our students felt no more welcome at the other major institutions. A tour of the White House for the students was precluded by the requirement that background checks would be necessary for all the members of the group participating in the tour. At the Supreme Court, the students were diverted from the front doors by guards positioned on the steps leading up to the building. To gain access to the court, students filed through security check points on the sides of the building. All of this prompted one of the students to remark, “I get that they need to guard against terrorism, but it’s starting to feel like they are protecting the buildings from us.”

During the national debate over the health care bill, many representatives expressed fear and displeasure at having to conduct town hall meetings with constituents about the merits of the legislation. In another instance, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, delivering a speech at the opening of the Capitol visitors center, celebrated the fact that the center would relieve representatives from “the smell of the tourists coming into the Capitol.” Reid intended the remark as a joke, but recent visitors to Washington have good reason to take his words at face value.

To be fair, the 9/11 attacks revealed the difficulties in trying to balance liberty and security in a free society. And none of this is intended to dishonor the brave men and women who risk their lives daily to protect our federal buildings and landmarks. It’s also unreasonable for us to expect our elected representatives to be as courageous as the patriot Nathan Hale, who declared, at his execution, that he only regretted having only one life to give for his country.

But it is deeply troubling that citizens must seek a pass from a member of Congress to see Congress in operation. It is not clear that democratic accountability is being maintained when a citizen is granted greater access to Congress via C-SPAN than by visiting the Capitol in person.

Given the sweeping tide of anti-incumbency sentiment in the country, it seems likely that many of our representatives who have rendered themselves inaccessible to constituents may soon find themselves without jobs.

But more than turnover in office will be needed to shake our national institutions out of their current siege mentality. A restored balance of liberty and security is required.

Eric C. Sands is an assistant professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College.