Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton

Representing the District of Columbia

Norton Introduces Bill to Ensure Openness and Public Access to Buildings in the Nation’s Capital

Sep 11, 2019
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, on the 18th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) introduced the United States Commission on an Open Society with Security Act, which would establish a commission of experts from a broad spectrum of disciplines to investigate how to maintain our democratic traditions of openness and access while responding adequately to the security threats posed by terrorism.  The bill authorizes a 21-member commission, with the president designating nine members and the House and Senate each designating six members, to investigate the balance between openness and security.  Members of the commission must come from varying fields and groups, among them: security, architecture, technology, sociology, psychology, military, city planning, business, engineering, and history.  Norton began working on the bill after Pennsylvania Avenue was closed and ugly barriers first began to emerge in the District of Columbia following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.  The events of 9/11 have made this bill even more urgent.

“Curtailing free movement in the nation’s capital is a primitive and unacceptable answer to a complex problem in a democratic society that prizes free movement,” Norton said.  “We need the assistance a commission of experts can bring to ensuring access without undercutting safety.  Eighteen years after 9/11, American citizens are still unable to enter some federal buildings to use restrooms or restaurant facilities.  Amazingly, even staff from the Congress, who have free access here, must be escorted at all times in some of these buildings.  Security in and around federal buildings is still not tailored to an agency’s mission.  A commission committed to both openness and public safety can help sort out these many issues.”

The nation’s capital has the largest number of federal facilities.  The commission’s work could become a model for states and cities from which to draw.

Norton’s full introduction statement follows.

Statement of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton on the Introduction of the United States Commission on an Open Society with Security Act

September 11, 2019

Today, I reintroduce the United States Commission on an Open Society with Security Act, expressing an idea I began working on when the first signs of the closing of parts of our open society appeared after the Oklahoma City bombing tragedy, well before 9/11.  This bill has grown more urgent as increasing varieties of security throughout the country have proliferated without any thought about their effect on common freedoms and ordinary access.  The bill I introduce today would begin a systematic investigation that takes full account of the importance of maintaining our democratic traditions while responding adequately to the real and substantial threats posed by terrorism.  

To be useful in accomplishing its difficult mission, the commission would be composed not only of military and security experts, but for the first time, they would be at the same table with experts from such fields as business, architecture, technology, law, city planning, art, engineering, philosophy, history, sociology and psychology.  To date, questions of security often have been left almost exclusively to security and military experts.  They are indispensable participants, but these experts cannot alone resolve all the new and unprecedented issues raised by terrorism in an open society.  In order to strike the balance required by our democratic traditions, a diverse group needs to be working together at the same table.

For years now, before our eyes, parts of our open society have gradually been closed down because of terrorism and fear of terrorism, even when there are no alerts, without regard to their effects on privacy or on an open society.  Particularly following the unprecedented 9/11 terrorist attack on our country, Americans have a right to expect additional and increased security adequate to protect citizens against this new frightening threat.  However, people expect government to be committed and smart enough to undertake this awesome new responsibility without depriving them of their personal liberty.  These years in our history will long be remembered by the rise of terrorism in the world and in this country.  As a result, American society faces new and unprecedented challenges.  We must provide ever-higher levels of security for our people and public spaces while maintaining a free and open democratic society.  As yet, our country has no systematic process or strategy for meeting these challenges.

When we have been faced with unprecedented and perplexing issues in the past, we have had the good sense to investigate them deeply and to move to resolve them.  Examples include the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9-11 Commission), the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (also known as the Silberman Robb Commission) and the Kerner Commission following riots that swept American cities in the 1960s.

The important difference in the commission proposed by this bill is that it seeks to act before a crisis in basic freedoms gradually takes hold and becomes entrenched.  Because global terrorism is likely to be long-lasting, we cannot afford to allow the proliferation of security that most often requires no advance civilian oversight or analysis of alternatives and repercussions on freedom and commerce.

With only existing tools and thinking, we have been left to muddle through, using blunt 19th century approaches, such as crude blockades and other denials of access, or risking the right to privacy using applications of the latest technology with little attention to privacy.  The threat of terrorism to our democratic society is too serious to be left to ad hoc problem-solving.  Such approaches are often as inadequate as they are menacing.

We can do better, but only if we recognize and then come to grips with the complexities associated with maintaining a society of free and open access in a world characterized by unprecedented terrorism.  The place to begin is with a high-level presidential commission of wise men and women expert in a broad spectrum of disciplines who can help chart the new course that will be required to protect both our people and our precious democratic institutions and traditions.