We understand the importance of security at our most significant nation treasures, especially post-September 11th. Symbols are very important to our national consciousness. The Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and the Statue of Liberty are vital in intangible ways to what we are as a nation.
Nonetheless in our first week on the road we have already experienced, been told by other Park Rangers, read in the papers and seen on the NBC National 6 O’clock news on March 25, 2004 some of the difficulties that the greatly elevated security has caused.
Our experience at the first site with heightened security, Independence National Historical Park (NHP), was stressful and not educational. In contrast to the other parks we visited, Independence NHP enjoyed a phalanx of Park Rangers. Every other park has been modestly staffed. The Park Service Rangers seem to have all been assigned to the cordoned-off Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Congress Hall. Most are working security, not answering questions, and not informing tourists with facts.
The Park Rangers within the security zone numbered at least 50. This number is a conservative estimate. There could have been as many as 100. In addition there were perhaps another 50 Wackenhut security guards and other private police outsourced to ensure the peace.
When we left to go to Independence Hall we had high expectations. I had read a few books in the last month about the Revolutionary Period. I was primed with questions. I was ready to be in awe. I was going to perhaps the most historically significant place in our nation; the place where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed. It was to be a personal pilgrimage. It was the place our nation began.
The bus dropped us off a block past Independence Hall, at 9:30. Three hours later after seeing the sites within the security zone we left Independence Hall and went on to have a wonderful day in the immediate vicinity at Independence NHP facilities.
The three hours before that time, however, included:
45 minutes in security lines;
5 basic questions to 5 different Park Rangers that they all were unable to answer;
1 threat from a privately hired Security Guard to ‘take my hands out of my pockets while I walk through the metal detector’;
18 minutes of the 30 minute tour of Independence Hall spent in a 20’ x 40’ room with around 50 people receiving a 1960’s era Revolutionary War Theory lecture taught at a 3rd Grade level;
15 minutes of our heads spinning and the resulting inability to concentrate on the Self-Guided Tour after seeing a Chinese tourist angrily forced to remove his belt, shoes, and sport jacket by a different privately hired Security Guard on his way to see the Liberty Bell of all things;
4 lectures by Park Rangers with factually incorrect information;
0 lectures that I listened to after those 4;
1 sharp reprimand to Gab for having the nerve to look at the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed while the other Park Ranger was giving a tour in the opposite room;
5 minutes that we saved by leaving the tour of Independence Hall before it was over.
I already feel, as an American, that Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and Congress Hall have been taken away from me. Akin to the Statue of Liberty, which one cannot even travel to nowadays, the heightened security has removed my ability to fully enjoy my national treasures in both a physical and abstract way.
Security cannot be allowed to remove and stifle freedom in the very name of freedom itself.
A Park Ranger at Congress Hall was explaining that this building was where Congress took place in 1789 when Washington D.C. was still being built. D.C. was not a glimmer in anyone’s mind in 1789, but I did not want to correct what seemed like a very rehearsed and prepared speech. I heard a separate Park Ranger recite the same thing word for word five minutes later.
The routine continued with the recognition that in this very room John Adams was sworn in as President of the United States. A pretty powerful thought.
I asked how much security there had been back then, considering that it was the first turnover of power in American history, and that we were still under very serious threat from both Great Britain and France.
He laughed loudly and responded that there was probably no security at all; that was how the founding fathers believed freedom should be.
The expenditures dictated by these extreme security measures have made the news recently. The Park Service Director Fran Mainella came under fire for suggesting remedies to a study that should the Parks to be under budgeted by some $600 million a year. Her remedies were so drastic that they must have been suggested only for effect: 1) close the Parks on Sundays and Mondays 2) close the Parks on all Federal holidays and 3) stop all Ranger tours.
I know, just from a week’s worth of travel, that these changes would be horrific and would veritably end the wonderful experience the Parks provide. Ranger Tours are necessary to learn about our treasures. Every Ranger, except at Independence Hall, has been a wellspring of knowledge. To end Ranger Tours would be to end the Parks themselves. It would also ruin our trip.
Neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times cited security as the reason for the budget shortage. But the NBC News did. As have every Ranger we have talked to along our trip.
To a person their response to the Park’s under funding is that all the money has been earmarked for security. They also do not openly disagree with this policy. But I do.
I do not want to lose my national treasures and the Rangers who have spent a life’s work learning about our history and our ecology. I do not want my national treasures to disappear, and in a sick irony, to disappear in the name of protecting them.
The Post, the Times and Congress believed that mismanagement has doomed the Park Service. I sure hope they are right. The Post cites Congress as showing the Park Service actually adding jobs and increasing its budget in the past years.
It does not state who has seen this money and which jobs are new. I suspect that they’ve all gone to security jobs and that much of the budget increase has been used to outsource security jobs at the high-risk sites. I sure hope I am wrong.
I love my National Parks. And I trust that they will be returned to the people.
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