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October 7, 2006
Security Barriers Passe'?

The near-ubiquitous concrete pillars in front of buildings in American cities have quietly started to disappear, even in high-risk terrorist targets in New York. The New York Times reports that building owners have begun removing them as their efficacy came under question in dense urban centers:

They started appearing on Manhattan streets immediately after September 11: concrete and metal barriers in front of skyscrapers, offices and museums. Some were clunky planters; others were shaped artfully into globes. They were meant to be security barriers against possible car or truck bombers in a jittery city intent on safeguarding itself.

But now, five years later, their numbers have begun to dwindle. After evaluations by the New York Police Department, the city’s Department of Transportation has demanded that many of the planters and concrete traffic medians known as jersey barriers be taken away. So far, barriers have been removed at 30 buildings out of an estimated 50 to 70 in the city.

Officials found that the barriers obstructed pedestrian flow — and, in the case of planters, often ended up being used as giant ashtrays. Counterterrorism experts also concluded that in terms of safety, some of the barriers, which building owners put in of their own accord, might do more harm than good.

Across the nation, security barriers were hastily erected as a fast reaction to the terrorist attacks. Vehicle barriers were installed at the Library Tower in Los Angeles and the Sears Tower in Chicago. Capitol buildings from coast to coast were barricaded with fresh rows of concrete posts. Through it all, officials have tried to balance safety with other concerns.

The Heritage Foundation's James Carafano hits the issue squarely when he notes the difficulty in using barriers to deflect terrorist attacks. The way to keep cities from getting hit by terrorists is to keep the terrorists out of the US altogether. Prevention is much more cost effective than massively building defensive structures around any and all buildings that might tempt lunatics.

However, these barriers sprang up much earlier than 2001. I recall that these concrete pillars began appearing after the Oklahoma City bombing. Usually they're incorporated into an overall design that doesn't make them terribly conspicuous, although that obviously would not apply to retrofits. My radio partner, Mitch Berg, tells me that the new federal courthouse in the Twin Cities designed the barriers as well as the landscaping to create a natural defense against car bombers, even designing the berms to deflect the force of an explosion away from the buildings.

Eleven years after Oklahoma City, the barriers have not had any serious test, and the likelihood that they will ever see a return on their investment seem unlikely. Carafano is right; the best investment against terrorists is a program that keeps them out of our cities altogether, or catches them before they attack. The barriers serve as little more than an architectural CYA, or even as a strange sort of status symbol. One of the experts that the Times quotes says that the pillars give an aura of importance to buildings that usually doesn't reflect their actual function or tenants.

In its way, this also reflects our overall efforts to secure ourselves against further terrorist attacks. In the wake of 9/11, we adopted a number of restrictions on travel in order to keep terrorists from turning the power of our own transportation against us. As we have progressed, we have realized that certain tactics have no effect and quietly drop them; the latest was the ban on liquids. We have learned that we cannot keep putting barriers on ourselves to achieve security, but instead have to eliminate the threat itself.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 7, 2006 12:11 PM

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