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Statue of Security

Lady Liberty remains barely open to the public.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Nearly 2 million tourists, many from overseas, descend on Liberty Island each year to commune with that green icon of American freedom, the Statue of Liberty. Most of them will actually get to see the monument—as long they put out their cigarettes, hand over any contraband coffees or pastries purchased at the Liberty Island Café, and maneuver their way through an extensive security gauntlet. In 2008 the path to Liberty runs past a battalion of armed guards.

Visiting in October, I was greeted by hours-long security lines at two sets of metal detectors—one gauntlet to board a ferry to Liberty Island, another feeding into two EntryScan bomb/narcotics sniffing machines near the actual statue. A scrolling marquee along the bottom of a TV monitor illuminated the motto of the New York City Security State: "See something, say something." Just in case the imminent threat of terrorist attack wasn't clear, plaques indicated that the statue's monument base closed for almost three years after the September 11 attacks.

The statue interior, including the crown, is still off limits. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wants to reopen it—evidence, clearly, of a pre?9/11 mind-set. Then again, Code Orange apparently has been the norm on Liberty Island for almost a century. A 1918 poster, prominently displayed in the base museum, depicts German planes blowing Lady Liberty's head into the water, her torch hand torn off jaggedly, as though she were a bit-part actress in Hostel.

You can still catch a glimpse of the interior, though. Our noble protectors have installed a clear window in the observation deck's inner sanctum upon which the lady's feet rest, allowing tourists to at least look at the metallic innards that they used to be able to climb seven years ago. Yes, Liberty now has a glass ceiling. Progress! Security!

During my visit, a group of elderly World War II vets festooned with embroidered patches reading "POW" and "Combat Wounded Veteran" were struggling to get through a secondary screening in a tent outside the statue. "No exceptions to the secondary security screening," a burly officer growled as the EntryScan 3 puffed in the background. If these men wanted to visit the emblem of what they bled for on some godforsaken battlefield, the hats, belts, jackets, canes and insignia pins all had to be removed and examined... again.

Two weary veterans demurred and were given a single stool to share between them while their comrades made the tour—honoring veterans, U.S. Park Police-style. It seemed ludicrously disrespectful, but perhaps Homeland Security had received a tip about a recently activated Al Qaeda sleeper cell recruited at Guadalcanal in '42. Maybe someone saw something/said something. You don't want some modern Fifth Column to blow off Lady Liberty's arm, do you?

Even at the Liberty Museum in the monument base, the Founders' vision of liberty is conspicuously absent, unless you count a psychedelic nude painting. ("The artist's daring expression of naked Lady Liberty symbolizes the desire for the world to return to the peace and innocent days of Adam and Eve.") Instead there's a wall dedicated to "the price" Lady Liberty ("born a celebrity"!) has "paid" for her fame, as perfidious "manufacturers around the world have not hesitated to use and abuse the Statue to sell everything from cigars to soap." So this is the modern Statue of Liberty: exploited by soulless capitalists, famous for doing nothing, an oxidized copper Paris Hilton with the good sense to wear long skirts in public.

I found a children's book in the gift shop that contained a handy glossary. It defined liberty as "the freedom to choose your work, your religion and your friends." In a perfect world, we'd chop that definition down to its first four words. Any kid paying attention would notice that Liberty Island exudes anything but.

 

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