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Pieces of the security puzzle


ONE RESULT of Oklahoma City will almost certainly be more security measures. That is the usual response nowadays to outrageous eruptions of civil violence. More security.

It is tempting to put sarcastic quotation marks around the word-- "security" -- because the history of the past 30 years is persuasive on the subject: The more security we pay for, the less secure we are and, what's worse, the less secure we feel.

Witness the mass fear of crime by middle-class Americans who have little or no experience with crime. It has driven politicians to such zeal for prison construction that they are even voting a little money for the cause.

When people in the tax-hating mood want security so desperately that they are willing to pay for it, something must be in the wind. And what is that something but belief that security is worth being taxed for?

Security has become a booming industry. Security "experts" flourish on TV news. Security guards block entrances to office buildings even though they house the most humdrum corporate bureaucrats.

And with good reason, you may say. The news story of the magnificently armed maniac with a grievance murdering harmless office workers wholesale is commonplace.

Sure it is, but can security stop him? The typical security guard at his lonely front desk makes an easy victim for the killer equipped by today's high-tech arsenal. In any case it is usually a cinch to slip through the back door unnoticed.

Security is creating a sort of national blight. The Capitol in Washington is no longer approachable by mere mortals who try to get there by car. Metal detectors have spread nationwide, including to schoolhouses in some cities.

When security stations first began appearing in foyers of Washington buildings swarming with lobbyists I often signed myself in as "J. Stalin" or "A. Hitler." Guards never noticed.

It was a childish rebellion against the age's growing appetite for keeping an eye on absolutely everybody. Since it would probably earn me a nasty grilling by security interrogators nowadays, I no longer try it. Freedom's cheeky impulse to resist authority's flapdoodle is drowned by the rising tide of security.

As all travelers know, no sane person will make a joke at the airport metal detector. Scenes remembered from old gangster movies discourage me from even the faintest smile.

("So you think there's something funny about airport security, eh? We'll see how hard you laugh when the body search begins down at headquarters.")

So we pass solemnly through security and, feeling safer for the indignity of the mechanized frisking, board an airplane that may have a deadly icing habit.

When he ran for president in 1968, a year of extraordinary violence, Sen. Eugene McCarthy said that when elected he would take down the fence around the White House. If it were made easy to assassinate presidents there would be no challenge to the ingenuity of aspiring killers, and they would quit, he said.

He was being ironic, of course, but he was also suggesting that too much security was self-defeating. The Secret Service, which cannot afford to test such an unorthodox hypothesis, insists on more security after every lunatic assault on the White House.

Lately the press has reported security dreams of maybe closing a section of Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House, thus producing monumental traffic problems. If security for presidents requires such dramatic inconvenience to the rest of humanity wouldn't it be better to move them out of Washington and house them in isolated underground bunkers far away from the dangers of daily living?

Absurd? Sure, and I raise the question only to suggest how farthe dream of total security may carry us. Each increase in what we call security involves the risk that another piece of freedom must be sacrificed to pay for it.

Following Oklahoma City, for instance, President Clinton has already proposed that police be empowered to infiltrate groups which the orthodox authorities suspect of threatening security. "Of course, of course," we may say, thinking to prevent other mass murders like this one.

And one day far off we wake to discover J. Edgar Hoover is among us again and plotting the ruin of Martin Luther King.

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

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