Murmurs of Democracy at Independence Hall

Nathaniel Popkin

January 25, 2007

 

As sales of the American flag grew rapidly after 9/11 and the flag was reproduced on car magnets, t-shirts, scarves, sweaters, hats, on school-children’s notebooks, homes, food wrappers, lapels, stamps, tattoos, and gas station logos, the other most cherished emblems of our civilization, the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, and Independence Hall, were placed under house arrest. 

            The Department of the Interior closed the Statue of Liberty immediately after 9/11.  This was probably a sensible and prudent step because Liberty Island appeared to be right in the line of attack.  Closing and fortifying it would help protect against further violence.  The island – but not the statue – was reopened three months later, now laden with security installations, check-points, x-ray devices, and barricades.  If you wished to pay homage to Liberty you would simply have to wait in line, comply with the pat-down, but this seemed like a small sacrifice at a time of war.  Indeed most Americans quickly grew accustomed to these inconveniences at the airport, amusement park, and courthouse.

            But, as dubious terror warnings were sounded, Lady Liberty was closed for almost three years.  The security installation was made more elaborate, cumbersome – at the very least sloppy and ungraceful – so that it no longer seemed petty to wonder what it all was for.  Sharing her experience on Trip Advisor, a woman from Washington, DC noted:

 

Be prepared, though, to go through lots of bureaucratic hurdles including two trips through tighter-than-airport security.  I understand why it's important to protect the statue from attack, but if I were a little more cynical I'd say that the new security measures are so extreme that they make a mockery of the ideal of liberty the statue is meant to honor…After buying my ticket I waited half an hour (in the freezing cold) to be let into the shed to wait for the ferry, then another half hour to go through pre-boarding security. For this step we were required to remove everything: shoes, jackets, watches, belts, and everything in our pockets, put it through a scanner, and walk through a metal detector. Any bags we were carrying were searched.

 

Last year, as the crown itself (once the very reason for visiting Liberty Island) remained shuttered, thumb-printing technology was installed to track visitors.  In the spring of 2005, a tourist from Chicago, on the website boing.boing.net, wrote:

 

In order to get to "Liberty" Island, you must first have your gear X-rayed by Wackenhut security goons. Then you ride to the island accompanied by Coast Guard types with German Shepherds. Once ashore, you are free to circle the island, take pictures of the statue, and buy overpriced Slurpees.

However, in order to get inside the statue, you have to stow your gear in a locker... that requires you to use your fingerprint as a key!!! You can also pay with a credit card, that way if anyone hacks the machine, they can have your print AND your credit card information. This must be in place to protect us from those Al Qaeda frogmen that are clever enough to swim ashore, but are too stupid to perform their dastardly deed at night where they can circumvent the locker bay by climbing the seemingly easy-to-climb wall.

In all likelihood, it’s probably to condition us into giving up our biometric information at every turn [As if biometrics could never be hacked...] so that security companies can make even more $$$, while we become more and more sheep-like each day. In any case, I didn't go inside.

           

What’s notable here, of course, is the tone.  It was no longer possible to shrug off the security as mere inconvenience; now it inspired cynicism, anger, and fear.  It also placed the Feds on one side and local officials, eager to make the tourist experience more pleasant, on the other.  Some officials began to doubt the good intentions of the National Park Service, and by extension the administration.  Upon learning that the crown would remain closed indefinitely, New York 9th District Congressman Anthony Weiner last summer told MSNBC that the decision was “the final victory of the terrorists on September 11.” 

Here in Philadelphia major improvements to Independence National Historical Park were nearing completion on 9/11.  The new National Constitution Center (set to open on July 4, 2003) would tell the story of the forming and reforming of the nation’s ideals.  A new home for the Liberty Bell, a new visitor center, and a landscape plan by Laurie Olin would create a three-block expanse allowing locals and visitors alike to feel a part of this nation’s great experiment.  The $300 million dollar project, mostly funded by local tax revenue, foundations, and other private sources, would return Philadelphia to the world stage. 

But following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as it did on Liberty Island in New York, the park service undertook severe and irrational security measures.  Federal officials, ignoring the protests of the mayor and council, closed the street in front of Independence Hall, wreaking havoc on local businesses, forcing bus routes to detour, and for the first time in history separating Philadelphians from their rightful inheritance.  (Indeed, in 1818, the City of Philadelphia purchased Independence Hall for $70,000, saving it from demolition.)  Bike racks strung together and covered with bunting were installed to block Independence Square, the sidewalk, and the area around the new Liberty Bell center; Bush family-friends at Wackenhut were paid to deploy security guards with guns to face down the crowd; Jersey barriers, some disguised as planters, were installed around much of the complex.  A security screening apparatus took over the first Supreme Court of the United States.  The Republican-aligned Johnson Controls (85% of their political contributions go to the GOP) was paid to install a security hut – made of white aluminum and looking as though it was taken from some third-tier airport – on top of the landscaping and pathways that were so recently installed next to the Liberty Bell Center. 

All of this appeared to destroy – nullify -- the $300 million investment.  Attendance, as at the Statue of Liberty, plummeted (in the first years after 9/11 by 50% in Philadelphia, 45% in New York).  It’s no mystery why.  Philadelphia photographer Brad Maule recalls his experience visiting the Bell this summer:

Liberty Bell Center itself is a post-9/11 facility…After you've been screened and approved as NOT a threat, there is no irony, just interactivity and raisin boxes with Liberty Bell insignias and little bells that kids can make ding and a busted-ass centuries old bell behind a velvet rope. Only here, you can't pay the bouncer off. As strong as your desire may be, and even if you did before, you can't touch the bell. That relationship is over; post-9/11, it's all look, no touch.

 

That relationship. To Philadelphians, Independence Hall is not museum piece but a part of the fabric of our city.  It’s our birth-rite to walk through the brick arcades on our way to work, to sit in the shade of its trees at lunchtime.  In that famous nineteenth century painting by Peter Frederick Rothermel, Statehouse on the day of the battle of Germantown, women and men crowd the doorway and arcades; there to care for the fallen soldiers, they appear to be part of the building, as one is with one’s home.  Now it seemed as if we were being forcibly removed.  The eviction officer had arrived.  We could no longer even touch the bunting.

It’s no surprise, then, that Philadelphians began to accuse the administration of intentionally severing this relationship.  Responding to the public’s doubt about the security plan, park service officials kept referring to “pressure from Washington.”  On ideological grounds a conspiracy seems to bear out.  It fits the pattern.  An administration that would hope to remove FDR from the dime (and undo the legacy of the New Deal) would likely attempt to alter our connection to these emblems of a more tolerant and open-minded democracy.  After all Independence Hall is where the world’s first truly liberal constitution – Pennsylvania’s -- was written; where the success of the insurrection lay in the hands of Franklin, a deist, a scientist, a pragmatist, to forge the alliance with France; it’s here where abolitionists first gathered; here where Federalism emerged from the ashes of states’ rights. 

Yet for all they’ve done to use fear to control the political rhetoric, these Neo-cons make lousy fascists.  They don’t seem to care enough about government to use it so thoroughly to their ideological advantage.  What seems clear is that an unambiguous anti-urbanism was coupled with the Bush reflex to enrich his corporate friends with easy government contracts.  On top of this emerged the American entrepreneur’s new-found obsession with security.  All of a sudden any two-bit security scheme was a necessary investment in public safety…Imagine the consequences if certain measures aren’t taken.

Thus, this past summer, the park service told us if we wanted to continue to protect our symbol of freedom from evil-doers we would have to put it permanently behind bars.  The bike racks would be replaced with a seven-foot wrought iron fence, splitting Independence Square, separating tourists from citizens, the heritage permanently from its people, while remaking the original Supreme Court to support the highest security measures. 

The irony was no longer lost.

The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and many others, aided by the free-flow and speed of the Internet and easy on-line access to government officials, organized an e-mail campaign to the National Park Service.  Hundreds of letters were sent decrying the fortification of that which was created to knock down the fort.  Give us back what we cherish, we demanded, that which reminds us of who we are. 

This week, thanks to the vestiges of the regulatory state still functioning in Washington, as they have yet and ultimately seem unlikely to do in New York, the Park Service rescinded the security plan.  A very favorable compromise was reached, essentially removing the security apparatus from the park.  No perfect solution, "It's not going to please everybody who wants to have totally unfettered access as before 9/11," Senator Specter told the Inquirer, "but I think it's a good balance." Accordingly, we’ll have to wait – until January 2009 I suppose – to be able walk through the old arcades, to sit on the steps and in the doorway, to feel once again so brilliantly at liberty.

To understand the significance of this little democratic uprising, it’s worth imagining what might have happened had the original Americans not demanded the government listen and pay heed to their beliefs.  Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, who arrived in Philadelphia this week as tourists, instead would have greeted us as subjects.  Now aren’t we all glad Philadelphians pay heed to their history?