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To Defend Everything Is To Defend Nothing

Lydia DePillis writes that the procession of target-hardening of government buildings in DC won’t be reversed despite Osama bin Laden’s death. The best we can hope for is some improved aesthetics:

“The federal office buildings that line most of Pennsylvania Avenue have asked for and want the planters for what most would consider obvious reasons,” writes Bill Line, spokesman for the National Park Service, which controls the sidewalk. “I would add that recent world events, especially within the past two weeks in Pakistan, underscore the need.” Officials at Federal Protective Services, the agency in charge of keeping U.S. government buildings safe, say they have no plans to replace “temporary” sidewalk obstacles for which they’re responsible.

There’s also some very good news: As security requirements got baked into new projects, we’ve actually scored some improved public spaces. The car-free section of Pennsylvania Avenue between 15th and 17th streets NW, redesigned soon after the attacks, has become a staging ground for both protest and contemplation. The new terraces of the Washington Monument grounds serve as places to sit, even as they protect the obelisk and its visitors from careening vehicles. President’s Park South, still a maze of Jersey barriers and temporary-looking fences, is finally slated for a makeover by the winner of a design competition that has drawn the best landscape architects in the country.

I think this really highlights what’s wrong with our thinking in this regard. The security around the White House serves a clear and important purpose. It makes it much more likely that a person on the streets of Washington with a car or truck full of explosives will do something with it other than blow up the White House. That, in turn, is important because killing the President of the United States — especially if he’s in the middle of a meeting with other important government officials — would seriously challenge the orderly operation of the government. This country has never attempted to implement the Presidential Succession Act and investing money and energy in making sure we don’t have to makes sense. If someone is deterred from blowing up the White House and drives over to 1333 H Street to blow up the Center for American Progress, that’s a win for American public policy.

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But most of the federal buildings that line Pennsylvania Avenue aren’t like that at all. It would be a terrible tragedy for someone to blow up the EPA building or the FTC building. But that’s just because it would be a terrible tragedy for someone to blow up any large office building. Terrorism is bad, and we should (and do!) use intelligence and law enforcement tools to try to reduce people’s ability to acquire truckloads of explosives for nefarious purposes. But passively securing random federal buildings doesn’t do much of anything to reduce the overall chances that some building or other will be blown up. It just costs money, inconveniences people, and makes the city uglier.