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Democracy stuck in a bunker mentality


© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 3, 2001

Welcome to Fortress Florida.

We used to call it the state Capitol. Back then tourists were welcome to come watch legislators make fools of themselves.

Now dozens of uniformed officers stand around every door. All tourists will be frisked -- along with the rest of us.

Entry is through a metal detector and the kind of X-ray machine you encounter at airports. An officer stands by to examine you further with a metal detecting wand.

Some elevators are no longer accessible to the public and lots of doors that used to be open are closed and locked, even to state employees who work in the Capitol.

And please don't bring hair spray or other lethal weapons like an unopened piece of mail. Those items are immediately confiscated, even if the letter is one you are planning to mail.

Even the food heading toward the Capitol cafeteria is X-rayed. One day last week huge cans of gravy waited for attention on the conveyor belt. I knew that stuff was canned!

Tourists and schoolchildren on class trips once roamed these halls, forming a circle around the state seal and trooping in and out of the public galleries that overlook the House and Senate.

The sweet voices of children singing once rang through the halls, entertaining whoever happened to pass by.

This week the chairs in the House and Senate galleries were mostly empty. Few come to observe. It takes too long to stand in line and clear all the metal detectors.

This is Florida after Sept. 11.

It's not just the metal detectors at every door to the Capitol we must pass through, but they have additional metal detectors set up outside the House and Senate. Those arriving at the Capitol with a laptop computer and cell phone must pause and turn them on at the front door and be checked again if they wish to watch legislators.

Perhaps the idea is to discourage reporters from observing. It didn't work.

As you might expect, there are differences in the way each house views all this security. Senate President John McKay wants lots of it. House Speaker Tom Feeney isn't as concerned.

Feeney is not happy to have his employees forced to move their cars outside the Capitol when they are working late. That means people often have to walk to parking lots late at night instead of being able to crawl into a car securely parked inside the Capitol.

State troopers congregate in the halls, watching and waiting alongside officers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, sheriff's deputies and Capitol Police. The tab for all this is likely to be astronomical. Florida's taxpayers are footing the bill for travel, hotel rooms and meals for all these visiting officers who might otherwise be out patrolling the roads or catching criminals.

Instead, they are standing around the Capitol searching reporters, lobbyists, legislators and state employees.

Everyone else is stressed and searched. But we got through a special session of the Legislature without any bad incident -- save for the awful behavior of the legislators themselves, which was ugly enough.

All this security and dozens of police officers standing around the doorways and patrolling the halls seems out of balance. Who is protecting the children at school, the aged and ill in hospitals or the local shopping mall?

Why have we made fortresses out of government buildings to protect politicians and left the rest of the world at risk? Is it more important to guard governors and legislators?

Somehow I suspect Floridians would be more outraged if terrorists took out an elementary school or a hospital. And I know I would be outraged if they took out a mall.

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