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Norton Seeks Balance

Bill Would Create Commission to Address Security and Access in D.C.

As sunshine and cherry blossoms descend on D.C. this spring, so does a vital aspect of Washington’s economy: tourists.

Yet, nearly four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, security and political officials must still grapple with how to balance safety and freedom. Finding a way to give D.C. visitors access while keeping them safe has proved to be a formidable challenge.

As a result, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has introduced a bill to create a presidential commission to advise the president and Congress on appropriate security measures for the capital while still maintaining liberty.

Norton introduced “The United States Commission on an Open Society with Security Act” on April 6, and it was referred to both the Transportation and Infrastructure and Homeland Security committees.

The commission would “investigate how to maintain our democratic traditions of openness, access and privacy while responding adequately to the substantial security threats posed by global terrorism,” Norton said in a press release announcing the bill.

It would be composed of experts from business, architecture, law, city planning, art, engineering, sociology and other disciplines, in addition to military and security experts.

Norton said in her introductory statement that the security threat to the D.C. area is “too serious to be left to ad hoc problem-solving.”

She said elected officials must stop abdicating their responsibility to the security sector without oversight. The goal of the commission, she added, would be to provide oversight of security measures and make them accountable to the people and elected officials.

“The only guidance out there on what to do comes from one sector — and that’s the security sector, and that’s an indispensable sector. But somebody’s got to keep us open,” Norton said in an interview.

She acknowledged that it is difficult to maintain the balance of security and freedom in the post-Sept. 11 era, saying that both security and elected officials are on a “learning curve.”

Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corp. CEO Bill Hanbury echoed Norton’s sentiments, arguing that D.C. must remain open and safe.

“We’re all struggling with trying to balance securing all of these national treasures and our important government leaders with an open society,” Hanbury said. “It’s a difficult balancing act.”

Norton cited several examples of security measures that make it more difficult to maintain an open society, especially around the Jefferson Memorial, where the parking lot has been closed due to security concerns and no public transportation is available.

While Hanbury contends the security situation is creating difficulties for visitors, he added that the public is adapting to the changes.

“The American public is adjusting to it, but [security] is a hindrance,” Hanbury said. “It casts a shadow over what should be a celebratory event.”

Hanbury also said the more visible security measures do not present an inviting view of D.C. to the city’s visitors.

“Clearly everybody realizes the amount of barriers and jersey fences that are strewn around this city. It’s not a good, positive message to send,” Hanbury said. He also noted that with the conclusion of various construction projects — including the Washington Monument restoration, near the White House, and the construction of the Capitol Visitor Center — the situation will improve.

A spokesman for the U.S. Capitol Police declined to comment on the pending legislation.

Norton said she has not received feedback from security officials on the proposal.

Security officials “aren’t saying, ‘Don’t do this.’ They do their job, which is to keep people safe. We’re [elected officials] not doing our job,” she said.

“I’m talking about surveillance, I’m talking about privacy. This is a very deep subject — one that we haven’t even begun to deal with,” Norton said. “All I’m saying is, ‘Where do we start?’”

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