So I’ve been wrapped up in family life, grading and a persistent cold since about the 22nd. One thing I did have a chance to do is take my daughter down to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Betsy Ross’ house and the Constitution Center this week: she expressed some interest in going.
I hadn’t been there since the major changes in security and the opening of new facilities. It used to be, most of the time, that you could just walk right up to Independence Hall and if it was open, walk right in. Sometimes when there were a lot of visitors you had to wait a bit, or the congestion was a bit off-putting. Now you have to go get free tickets and go through a very substantial security check, roughly equivalent to what’s required to get on a plane. I had to empty my pockets (including, at the specific request of the security official, my parking validation ticket) and remove my belt before going through a metal detector. Not my shoes, at least. The quickest time to get into Independence Hall was many hours after we arrived, so we settled for the Liberty Bell and headed off to see Betsy Ross.
The new exhibits are impressive: I especially liked what I saw of the Constitution Center. However, the whole experience made me feel melancholy. Usually when there is public talk about changes in the handling of security after 9/11, it turns into a hot-button discussion about the Bush Administration, with critics assuming that such measures are an over-reaction instrumentally intended to bolster the Administration’s political fortunes and Bush defenders arguing that such measures are absolutely necessary and implying that any critic must not care about the threat of terrorism.
Whatever I was feeling this week down in Philadelphia, it wasn’t easily found in that shouting match. It doesn’t seem to me that these kinds of changes have much to do with orders from the top. They’re more like a bottom-up institutional reaction to general signals. No institution wants to appear as if it’s uncaring or unconcerned about an issue that has received enormous public attention, whether it’s the threat of terrorism or multicultural inclusiveness. So most institutions, with very little specific political intent, try to do something to communicate their sincerity and responsiveness. That’s partly a genuine desire to make institutions meaningful to their publics and partly the kind of self-reproducing, self-interested behavior that bureaucracies habitually exhibit. To do nothing or be perceived to be doing nothing as a bureacrat, a middle-manager or representative of an institution is to invite elimination, to appear superfluous.
So high-rises add new security measures at entry to look as if they’re thinking about terrorism. Museums have new searches. Photography gets prohibited in various spaces. And Independence Hall gets removed from easy public access. I don’t think many of these measures actually accomplish much of anything. If you visit Independence Hall or the area around it, I think you’ll see fairly quickly that if someone was to approach the area on foot with explosives on their body or in with a vehicle full of explosives, they could still do considerable damage to the building and to the lives of visitors. Maybe the new precautions make it more difficult for someone of ill intent to do harm and that’s a good thing, I don’t know.
The way it makes the whole area feel is something to hold in balance against that change. Independence Hall has long been one of my favorite American sites of historical importance because it felt so much like our collective property, our patrimony. You could just walk in. It was there for us, of us. Now it feels like theirs: the government’s, the Park Service’s, someone else’s. A place operated by someone else, for someone else, guarded against the public rather than belonging to it. A place to which I have no rights, and from which derive no strength. I don’t attribute that change in feel to any political faction or leader, and don’t really hold anyone responsible for it. It’s also a very vague and emotional claim to lodge against the hard facts of public safety, assuming that in fact the site is safer than it was, something I’m not entirely convinced about. I wonder, however, what it is that we are preserving the building for, in this case.