| Jérôme Cartillier |
WASHINGTON (AFP) – For once, the debate gripping Washington is not about party politics.
It is about the White House fence. Is it high enough? Should it be electrified? Are tourists allowed to get too close to the building?
After a series of security lapses that raised questions about the safety of the US president, do authorities need to change or reconsider the fence surrounding the First Family’s residence in the heart of the city?
White House fence jumpers are hardly a new phenomenon.
But the spectacular breach that saw an Iraq war veteran sprint across the White House lawn in mid-September and enter the building with a knife in his pocket has rattled the US Secret Service, which is tasked with protecting the President.
A complete security review was ordered, and the results are due in two weeks.
The arrest of yet another fence-jumper this week has fuelled the debate over how to best secure the building where American presidents and their families have lived and worked since 1800.
President Barack Obama’s administration has stressed its commitment to finding a balance between the “top priority” – protecting the president – and making sure the symbol of American democracy does not become a fortress.
“It certainly would be possible to build a multi-storey bombproof wall around the 18-acre complex of the White House,” spokesman Josh Earnest said.
“But that, I don’t think would be striking the appropriate balance.”
He said experts were considering a range of measures, such as deploying more personnel and technology, or placing additional fences or other barriers.
“It’s not just protecting a popular tourist destination; it’s about protecting the symbolism of that popular tourist destination continuing to be accessible to the American public and to the individuals who are responsible for electing the person who lives there,” Earnest said.
Tourists visiting Washington for the first time are often surprised by the almost unobstructed view of the White House.
From the North, across from Lafayette Square, the gardens surrounding the building seem surprisingly easy to reach, with an iron fence about 7.5 feet (2.2 metres) high the only barrier.
Maintaining the concept of accessibility is key, even if visitors clearly cannot just walk through the front door unhindered.
Washington’s non-voting representative in the US Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, this week demanded a taller fence with a curve at the top that would make fence-jumping more difficult.
But she also warned against the temptation to push tourists farther away.
Any changes to access “should be in line with current public access to the areas surrounding the White House and maintain the current views of this historic and national landmark,” Norton said.
Beyond its appeal to tourists, the area near the White House is a symbol of the right to freedom of expression, a place where all sorts of protesters gather.
Anyone can come in front of the gates to express anger or joy, megaphone in hand. And the range of opinions expressed is indeed broad.
Anti-nuclear activists have faithfully kept a peace camp there since 1981.
One day, a man in an orange jumpsuit demands the closure of the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
On another, a man in a white Hazmat suit demands a ban on flights coming from African countries affected by the Ebola virus.
While the debate now centres on boosting security, access to the White House gardens was for a long time far easier.
The first fence was put up under President Thomas Jefferson. But the goal then – when Washington was still largely rural – was to keep the cattle out.
The third US president (1801-1809) in fact did much to encourage Americans to consider the place as their own, opening the house to the public for the first time.
Jefferson was intent on “making it clear that the White House was a structure that belonged to the American people, it was not a structure to be hidden away,” said William Bushong, chief historian of the White House Historical Association.
While the fence was completed gradually, the gates were often open, with the gardens serving as a public park for most of the 19th century.
The fence has remained little changed over the years but the entire security apparatus has evolved.
Cars have been blocked from travelling on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House since the deadly 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City.
Some have recently suggested naming a “czar” to oversee White House security.
Obama recently named one to manage the Ebola crisis. Could he name another to reconcile Jeffersonian ideals and an American president’s 21st century security needs?