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Fred Hiatt: Fortunately Jefferson Can't See the Barriers Outside His Monument

Fred Hiatt, in the WSJ (1-10-05):

Fortunately, Thomas Jefferson can't see the ugly concrete barriers and metal fences impinging on his monument; he is facing the other way, looking out across the Tidal Basin.

The barriers were shoved into place about two years ago, closing off the Jefferson Memorial parking lot. Now, as Spencer S. Hsu recently reported in The Post, the National Park Service is proposing to make the closure permanent and to add new barricades around the Lincoln Memorial, too....

No doubt the Park Service would counter with any number of blast studies showing the danger to Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln of a truck bomb of such-and-such force at such-and-such a distance. But a leader could respond: So what? Some people would die, but people would die at whichever next-most-vulnerable site the terrorists might focus on. A 20th-century statue might be destroyed. The terrorists would claim a symbolic victory. But if it is symbols we are protecting, then what have we lost when people can no longer stop in at the Jefferson to read the inscriptions on its curved walls, when every "people's" monument is walled off by deadened streets and armed militia and long lines of tourists waiting to be wanded?

The Jefferson Memorial is no stranger to controversy, much of which rings oddly familiar to modern ears. Many people hated the original plan -- too neoclassical in its echoes of Rome, they said -- and only a stubborn stand by the architect's widow prevented a radical redesign. Scores of environmentalists, though they didn't yet have the name, tried to derail the construction that began in 1939 by chaining themselves to the cherry trees they claimed would be destroyed. (Their forecasts of 700 arboreal uprootings proved wildly exaggerated.) When war began, people objected to lavishing money on a monument.

But Franklin Roosevelt wanted the memorial built, and at its dedication in 1943 he said, "Today, in the midst of a great war for freedom, we dedicate a shrine to freedom."

Will it remain such a shrine? While Thomas Jefferson looks majestically north, his compatriot George Mason lounges behind him, in his far less formal monument across the way -- and beyond the cement barriers -- from Jefferson. "I recommend to my sons," Mason tells visitors, in an inscription carved behind him, "never to let . . . the fear of danger or of death deter them from asserting the liberty of their country."