In our security-saturated times, it takes some courage to resist overreacting to fears of what if.
So I think the Cedar Rapids City Council deserves some praise for not limiting public access to City Hall, for not locking its doors or installing metal detectors. News of that decision broke this past week.
Some unnamed council members apparently favored tighter security, but not enough of them to sway the entire council. So multiple City Hall doors will remain open to the citizens who pay the freight.
It’s unusual these days to find government officials who stare into the vortex of threat assessments and dire predictions of future fiendishness and still decide that they would rather live with the risks than build a bunker.
I was working in the Iowa Statehouse in the aftermath of 9/11 when metal detectors were installed and several previously public entrances were locked tight. Sure, it was a pretty minor inconvenience, except for that morning when I followed a company of Civil War re-enactors toting rifles, bayonets and swords through security.
But the messages those metal detectors sent were a lot more troubling. Every person visiting the people’s house is now a threat until proven otherwise. And the volatility of our public debates, the depth of our divisions and disagreements, mean that we can no longer fully be trusted to peacefully petition our leaders. So empty your pockets, please.
It’s true that the City Council has taken some pointed criticism in recent years, some entirely appropriate, and some entirely shrill and unglued. I’ve been at council meetings where the vitriol became uncomfortable, on the verge of threatening. I can imagine that uneasy feeling is amplified when the verbal brickbats are being thrown your way.
But we have laws on the books aimed at people who cross the line from heated words to threats and beyond. And we have police who are ready and trained to enforce those laws. Those safeguards are what protect all of us outside the walls of City Hall, and the council has decided they provide enough protection inside.
City leaders have also scrapped what would have been a lousy law — an ordinance proposed last fall that could have banned disruptive or unruly council critics from City Hall for anywhere from 30 to 90 days. County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden argued forcefully that the law would have violated the First Amendment and could have had a chilling effect on free speech.
I agree with Vander Sanden. But the proposal is dead. “It never went anywhere,” said City Manager Jeff Pomeranz.
As I said, these decisions take some guts. Because, now, if something unthinkable does happen, the council will be criticized by a second-guessing chorus for not doing enough to prevent it. That’s why so many of our public officials over the years have erred on the side of lockdown.
All I can promise is that I won’t be joining that chorus.