As Robert Frost said
, good fences make good neighbors.
Someone who definitely likes good fences is former Secret Service Director Ralph Basham. He told CNN
that the White House needs a bigger and badder one if it wants to stop fence jumpers:
Former Secret Service director Ralph Basham said the fence around the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue is particularly vulnerable.
"That is the problem," said Basham, founder of Command Consulting Group, a security firm. "It took this individual less than 30 seconds" to scale the fence.
Basham said he is not necessarily recommending a higher fence, suggesting instead an added tilt at the top, or non-lethal shock wire to increase security.
"I don't think anyone in this country wants to see a White House that's got concrete walls, and Concertina wire across the top, and guard towers on the corners. That is unacceptable. And that's the challenge that the Secret Service has," he said.
Any changes to the fence would require buy-in from several different groups, such as the White House Historical Association and the National Capital Planning Commission, said Basham.
"All of these entities have to be satisfied when you're dealing with this simple sort of question: Should we not enhance this type of fence and make it more secure?" he said.
In case anyone takes that suggestion of an electrified fence seriously, please add to the list of parties who need to buy-in (1) the President, (2) the Congress, and (3) every personal injury lawyer in America. I assume that no one is
taking it seriously, if only due to the impracticality.
Such fences usually need to be put up inside of an outer boundary fence, the electric wires need to be isolated and grounded, and the emanations they put out can interfere with a variety of devices that are probably in constant use around the White House. Not to mention that they can be defeated easily enough by an intruder with a little knowledge; the primary use for electrified fences is to contain cattle
, and even the stupidest White House fence jumper is brighter than a cow, although maybe not by much. File that idea under Not Feasible.
On the other side of the issue is the public space / public architecture community, those people who, Frost would say, do not love a wall. They were well-represented by the WaPo's Art and Architecture critic, Phillip Kennicott, who came out swinging with a column
that included this:
The loss of public space and the intrusion of the security apparatus into daily life are not merely inconveniences. Among the most cherished symbols of democracy is openness, including direct access to our leaders. Politicians, in a democracy, must understand that holding elected office means not only maintaining that direct connection to the people, but also incurring some inevitable measure of risk. If they do not wish to run the risk, they should not run for office.
It is not reasonable to ask a free people to continually submit to police control; doing so becomes ingrained, and when we freely submit to unreasonable searches, we lose the all-important, reflexive distrust of authority that helps keep us free. We must not allow the ever-increasing, ever-more-powerful security apparatus to train us in slavish behavior, or our deepest habits will conform to their darkest estimation of our worth.
Whoa! Is he saying that there is inherent risk is open public spaces and democratic systems? And that because our public office-holders wanted those jobs they must accept the unavoidable risk that comes with them? And that it is necessary for free people to distrust authority lest they internalize a condition of slavery? I say that's bold talk for an architect, and I agree with him one hundred percent.
So, how big a security problem are these fence jumpers? Not all that big, historically. So far as I can tell from the public literature, the last time there was a systematic review of White House security was during the Clinton administration, and it produced a report
that documented a typical pace of 3 to 5 intruders and gatecrashers per year from the 1970s onward. All but a few of them have been innocuous.
What to do about those few fence jumpers who are dangerous
? Since landmines are now off the table
, why not go with ex-Director Basham's call for a better fence? Even Kennicott would agree that is the least intrusive option that is likely to be effective.
As it happens, the White House fence is currently being renovated
, so this seems to be an ideal time to do a little redesigning:
The White House fence along Pennsylvania Avenue is being moved about 16 feet farther from the building while the original fence is being restored.
The restoration, which was supposed to be completed by the end of September, has taken longer than expected and is now likely to be finished in March [TSB note: if you couldn't tell, this is a government project], Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, National Park Service spokeswoman, said. In the meantime, chunks of the barrier that separate excited tourists from the president’s house are being moved back incrementally.
I had never before paid attention to the White House's perimeter fence, and now that I do, I can't believe what a crappy barrier it is.
|A section of temporary fence (left) in front of the original |
The fence looks to be barely six feet high, and it's mounted atop a wide stone base that makes a nice step to stand on while you grab the top rail and pull yourself over. Even better, someone placed handy ledges and platforms just outside the fence to give an intruder more hand- and foot-holds.
the White House's first line of defense against intruders? That is incredibly weak. I don't think the Secret Service was paying attention when they approved that design.
|That stone base makes a handy seat for protestors, too|
|It's just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Penns. Ave fence to the house |
Seriously, the Secret Service ought to beef up that fence. Increase the height of the pickets by at least another foot, remount the pickets to the outer edge of that stone base in order to make it useless as a step (or bevel or round off the base to accomplish the same thing), and maybe cover the lower portion of the fence with a little transparent material to make it harder to climb while not visually detracting from the architectural openness stuff that Mr. Kennicott is going on about.
A mundane improvement, I suppose, but maybe that's all it would take to slow down the next nut for a critical few seconds while the legions of White House security forces react.