The counterterror expert I spoke to who offered the most unequivocal support for enhanced security at the site was Kip Hawley, a former head of the Transportation Security Administration. Hawley saw both threat-based and emotional justifications for heightened security. But even he would not enter into a discussion on the effectiveness of the specific measures at the memorial. Neither would a Sept. 11 memorial representative, except to say that the security protocols are appropriate for the twice-targeted WTC site.
Again, for the sake of argument, let’s assume there is a risk and that the Sept. 11 memorial’s security regime effectively lowers it. Then it’s worth it, right?
Maybe not even then. I suggested to Schneier that although the security measures wouldn’t stop a coordinated attack by al-Qaeda, they might deter a lone actor. He agreed but noted that the security measures wouldn’t stop that lone unsophisticated actor—they’d only shift the location of his attack. In terms of lives lost, if not symbolism, an attack would be just as bad “in a million places,” said Schneier. In many—a crowded mall or train—it might be much worse.
But doesn’t the 9/11 site deserve special protection? That’s essentially the view of experts who supported enhanced security simply because the site is so iconic. Schneier calls that an emotional argument “which will cost lives, rather than save them, if the money could be better spent elsewhere.” Schneier’s approach doesn’t account for the emotional weight of the 9/11 site. And who knows—presumably there’s plenty of “smart” security, too, behind the scenes. But his point—that every dollar we spend on security theater is a dollar we don’t invest in smarter security—gets harder to ignore each time your memorial ticket is checked, scanned, or drawn on with the blue pen.
Why else might the Sept. 11 memorial’s security not be worthwhile? Because it makes the site less open and accessible. Bizarrely, the Web page that lists the memorial’s limited hours (10:00 a.m. until 6:00 or 8:00 p.m., depending on the season) also describes the memorial as a place “meant to be experienced at all times of the day.” I asked Barrett if he could think of any similarly restricted locations; he suggested hotels in Kabul and Islamabad.
In terms of balancing America’s most cherished values, no other American memorial marking a terrorist act has struck anything like the “balance” New York has. The Oklahoma City memorial, the Flight 93 memorial, even the Sept. 11 memorial at the Pentagon: None require advance names, photo ID, or airport-style security, let alone all three. The outdoor Oklahoma City memorial—open 24/7 year-round—seems more concerned with helping visitors find nearby doggie daycare than burdening them with byzantine rules and regulations. Abroad, access to highly urban memorials in freedom-loving countries better acquainted with terrorism—Spain, the United Kingdom—is unfettered. Neither the memorial to the London July 7, 2005, attacks nor the Madrid station bombing memorial require preregistration, ID, or security checks.
The Sept. 11 memorial’s security is perfect in at least one inadvertent sense: There’s no better place to consider our national reaction to 9/11 than at the memorial, and its security regimen inspires us to do just that. Indeed, much of the memorial experience—the ID requirements, long lines, senselessly repetitive checks of home-printed documents, restrictions on personal belongings, agents snapping between diligence, boredom, and aggression—recalls nothing so much as post-9/11 air travel.
That irony, however sad, is worth confronting. Was physical safety the only point of our breathtaking expenditure of lives, money, and goodwill after 9/11, or was the point also to defend our way of life? Have we remembered—in Barrett’s words—“what we are fighting for … as well as what we are fighting against?” Are we proud of becoming a country where we must show ID to buy a bus ticket—even when (as recently happened to me) you don’t buy the ticket until you’ve reached your destination? Ours is a government that has banned scissors from Liberty (as in, Statue of) Island—and we are, it seems, a people who don’t really mind.
Then again, maybe we’re beginning to mind a bit. Some memorial visitors aren’t entirely happy with its resemblance to a Demilitarized Zone; others aren’t quite ready to accept that police there might delete pictures from your camera. You don’t need to be a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association to sympathize with the Tennessee nurse who faced possible felony charges for asking where she might check the gun she’d inadvertently brought to the memorial. Nationally, too, there are flickers of a renewed debate over how Americans balance security and freedom—whether it’s Tea Partiers protesting intrusive airport pat-downs or the New York Times’ series about whether it’s time for the pendulum to swing back toward “civil liberties and individual privacy.”
The Sept. 11 memorial’s designers hoped the plaza would be “a living part” of the city—integrated into its fabric and usable “on a daily basis.” I thought that sounded nice, so I asked Schneier one last question. Let’s say we dismantled all the security and let the Sept. 11 memorial be a memorial like any other: a place where citizens and travelers could visit spontaneously, on their own contemplative terms, day or night, subject only to capacity limits until the site is complete. What single measure would most guarantee their safety? I was thinking about cameras and a high-tech control center, “flower pot”-style vehicle barriers, maybe even snipers poised on nearby roofs. Schneier’s answer? Seat belts. On the drive to New York, or in your taxi downtown, buckle up, he warned. It’s dangerous out there.
Additional reporting by Krystal Bonner.