August 4, 2004
The Statue of Security
By CAROLYN CURIEL
For anyone who has ever trekked up the spiral staircase of the Statue of Liberty and peered through the crown's narrow windows, the statue's reopening this week, for the first time since the 9/11 attacks, is bittersweet. Its surrounding grounds and facilities have been spruced up, and members of the National Park Service gamely claim that the statue, an international icon, is better than ever. But there's no way to ignore the loss of what was the main attraction: tourists can no longer knock themselves out by climbing those storied 354 steps.
It's perhaps an unavoidable result of the vigilance against terrorism, but a sad one nonetheless. The new tour stops short of the hem of Liberty's robes, at the top of her thick concrete pedestal, in a room that holds only 30 people at a time, or about 3,000 people a day who are quickly shuffled in and out. While a guide gives a short talk and shows a video, tourists are invited to look up at the ceiling, where a few glass panels give a glimpse of a few feet of the interior. Tourists can also step into the open air on a deck that lines the pedestal. That's as good as it gets. And that's only after each visitor is screened twice, by X-ray and metal detectors before boarding a ferry to the monument, and then on the premises by new scanners looking for explosives and narcotics.
Throughout the statue's base are monitors showing the routes to the nearest exits in case of an emergency, while across the bottom scrolls a constant message: "If you see something, say something." Oddly enough, this antiterrorism mantra, which appears in bilingual postings in city subways and buses, is only in English at this symbol of America's polyglot immigration.
Larry Parkinson, a deputy assistant secretary for law enforcement and security at the Interior Department, says greater access to the statue itself has not been ruled out. But it isn't in the works right now, and the motives for caution seem to stretch beyond security. There is concern about wear and tear on the statue. The people who used to climb the stairs were apparently not unlike those unconscionable climbers of Everest who left behind proof of their presence in the form of garbage - in this case, mostly chewing gum and food refuse.
But it's hard to avoid the impression that the officials who spent millions in private and public funds to restore and fortify the statue don't want anyone to mess it up. With the nonprofit charity that has been in charge of soliciting donations under fire for paying its executives too much money, this seems like a time when everyone should be trying to make things as accessible as possible.
Obviously, security will have to come first, but visitors to the Statue of Liberty, the symbol of American freedom, shouldn't be constrained forever.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company