It's a quintessentially American tradition, suspended since Sept. 11, 2001: to climb to the crown of the Statue of Liberty and view the nation's greatest city through the eyes of its greatest symbol.
On Saturday, the statue, closed above its base since the terror attacks, will reopen to visitors — a relative few, in small groups, specially ticketed, carefully screened and escorted by a park ranger.
The decision to again allow people under Liberty's skin and up to her crown reflects two evolving attitudes toward post-9/11 anti-terrorism security, public opinion polls and security specialists suggest:
• It may be time to begin easing some anti-terrorism security that's particularly costly, restrictive or intrusive.
• Security and public convenience may not be mutually exclusive.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar seemed to encourage these ideas this year when he said reopening the crown "would proclaim to the world — both figuratively and literally — that the path to the light of liberty is open to all."
In officially announcing the move on May 8, Salazar called it "a new beginning, restoring confidence in the American people, in their government and in our place in the world."
Visitors on Liberty Island that day drew the obvious conclusion: "That means we're safer," said Bonita Voisine of Naples, Fla. Susan Horton of Greensboro, N.C., agreed: "The fact that they're opening the crown must mean that they're confident of the security, and that's good."
According to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken last month, almost nine in 10 Americans agree with the decision.
The Statue of Liberty is a special case, and its reopening doesn't necessarily suggest a general easing of anti-terrorism security across the nation. But some analysts say that such a visible move could be a harbinger of change in how the nation balances the risks of terrorism against the costs — in public treasure and personal freedom — of securing against it. "Enough time has elapsed that there's a greater willingness to take a look at security measures adapted after 9/11 and ask, 'Are we getting bang for our buck?' " says Edward Alden, author of The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration, and Security Since 9/11.
The crown's reopening, he adds, "says we're feeling secure enough, in a modest way, to reopen this national symbol."
That sense of growing confidence was reflected in the USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. The percentage of Americans worried that they or a relative will be victimized by terrorism has declined over the past two years from 44% to 36%, and almost three-quarters expressed confidence in the government's ability to protect them from terrorism.
James Carafano, a homeland security specialist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, says the nation feels confident enough for "a period of fine-tuning" for two reasons: The domestic terrorist threat is better defined, and the nation is better prepared.
Unlike the period immediately after 9/11, he says, "we know that al-Qaeda doesn't have thousands of sleeper cells here." And he describes America 2009 as a safer neighborhood: "If you have good police protection, you don't need a minefield in your yard."
So far, any change appears to be more psychological than physical — less a wholesale relaxation of post-9/11 security than a reduction in the fear that propelled it. But there are a few signs of relaxed security.
In New York City, the block of 41st Street that passes under the ramps of the Port Authority Bus Terminal has been reopened after the terminal's exterior columns were strengthened and a parking deck was reinforced.
In Philadelphia, public pressure helped force the National Park Service to remove barriers to pedestrians in Independence Square and to cancel plans for a 7-foot-high security fence around Independence Hall that would have bisected the square.
Ross Bulla, a Charlotte-based consultant, says companies are spending less on anti-terrorism security because of what he calls a "complacency" born of the fact that there have been no major domestic attacks since 2001.
Liberty crown's reopening also illustrates a second possibility: With some work — or the right technology or enough money — public facilities can be safe from terrorists and more accessible to Americans:
• Since 9/11, trucks have been banned from the two-lane road over the Hoover Dam, forcing a long detour to the south. Next year a new bridge over the Colorado River will open just downstream, carrying all vehicular traffic and bypassing the narrow, winding and frequently jammed road leading across the dam. (The road on the dam will remain open to visitors.)
• The Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, which opened in December, creates a 100-yard security buffer zone between the Capitol and the visitor entrance, but also provides visitors — who used to line up outside in all sorts of weather — a spacious, air-conditioned waiting area with 26 public restrooms.
•The car-bomb barrier built around the Washington Monument, part of a four-year project to protect the landmark, also accommodates a handsome, dark granite seating bench.
No turning back
Despite the changing mood, in many ways anti-terrorism security is as tight and inconvenient as ever.
Travelers at airport checkpoints are still removing their shoes and belts, discarding their water bottles and pulling out their laptops. Visitors to courthouses are still opening bags and emptying pockets. Urban pedestrians still can't cut through many of the office building lobbies that were open before 9/11.
Nowhere is the continued vigilance more apparent than on the border with Canada, where Predator drones sometimes patrol overhead and rules for crossing into the USA have gotten stricter.
As of June 1, Americans, who had been able to present a range of identification at the border to re-enter the country, are supposed to have a passport or another approved form of secure identification.
The requirement is expected to lengthen lines at border crossings this summer when it's fully enforced — even though U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from Upstate New York, says a bridge from Canada is "the last place" a terrorist would use to enter the USA.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano makes no apologies. "If things are being done at the Mexican border," she said earlier this year, "they should be done at the Canadian border."
For all the grumbling in airport security lines, the poll found that only 14% of Americans think that many security measures in place to stop terrorism could be dropped safely.
And as conservatives such as former vice president Dick Cheney accuse President Obama of weakening anti-terrorism policies, Republicans will treat any relaxation in security "as a sign that this administration is not working as diligently as they did to make the country safe," says Stephen Flynn, a Council on Foreign Relations specialist in homeland security.
At any rate, security agencies generally are loath to reduce security because they "become invested in what they're doing," Flynn says.
"Once you say, 'No nail clippers aboard airplanes,' it's hard to dial that back," agrees Anthony Weiner, a Democratic congressman from Brooklyn who lobbied for the Liberty crown to be reopened.
The trek to the top of the Statue of Liberty became a sensation almost by accident. Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, sculptor of the landmark he called Liberty Enlightening the World, intended it to be seen only from the outside; the interior staircase was designed to allow a lighthouse keeper access to the torch.
After the statue's dedication in 1886, however, officials wanted to encourage tourists to take the 25-cent ferry ride to the island. So they began allowing people up to the crown's cramped interior observation platform, which has 25 windows.
The climb to the crown became a staple of class trips and family vacations. Each morning visitors would leap off the first ferry to arrive at the island and sprint toward the statue, eager to be the first to the top. But most people waited for hours, sweating, making friends, complaining.
After 9/11, the island was closed, because it seemed an obvious and vulnerable target: a relatively fragile, world-famous symbol in the middle of New York Harbor, filled with hundreds of people with no easy escape.
The island reopened Dec. 20, 2001, but the statue itself remained closed. Three years later, trips to the island still were down at least 40%. William Fisher, who visited that summer from Scotland with his children, likened it to going to the Empire State Building and not being able to go to the top.
In 2004, the monument's massive pedestal reopened with new exits and security screening. Visitors now could see the interior of the statue, including the elaborate latticework support system, through the pedestal's new glass ceiling. But then-Interior secretary Gale Norton called the statue "an attractive terrorist target" and said the crown would remain closed.
The decision was denounced by Weiner, who said that as long as the crown was closed, the terrorists, in a way, had won.
At a congressional hearing in 2007, Daniel Wenk, deputy director of the Park Service, said there would be no change in policy: "Our primary concerns ... are safety and health concerns, not terrorism."
Back to the crown
Today, many visitors to Liberty Island are disappointed to find the crown closed. "It's the biggest question I get," Park Ranger Jon Mazza says.
On a recent weekday, he stood at the base of the island's flagpole, talking to a tour group. He did not encourage nostalgia for the old days when the wait and walk to the crown took five hours. For much of the trek, he said, a climber would be facing the butt of the person on the step in front. "You got to know that person pretty well," he says.
On July 4, he says, about 20,000 people will come to the island. Of those, about 2,500 will get inside the statute, and perhaps 250 will have a ticket (issued first come, first serve) to the crown.
To get inside, he warns, "you'll face security twice as intense as any airport you've ever been in, and twice as intense as what you went through to get out here."
That same day, the island was visited by Bartholdi himself — as played by professional actor Adam Sullivan. He wore a dandyish outfit with a floppy red bow tie and bowler hat and clutched a roll of blueprints.
"Bartholdi" was asked about all the security around his statue.
He pointed out that the island had long been militarized: The statue's pedestal sits on a fort built for the War of 1812. (The statue's torch, once the highest point accessible to visitors, was closed in World War I after it was damaged by a violent ammunition dump explosion in neighboring Jersey City caused by German saboteurs.)
"But I do find it a strange target for a warrior," he said of the statue. "If you destroy a work of art, you might make people mad, you might make them sad, but what do you really accomplish?"
Equally odd to the faux Frenchman was visitors' desire to climb to the top of his statue.
"They can go up there if they wish, but they will be disappointed by the view," he said, gazing up at the statue. "She is the view."
Staying in character, the actor did not mention another sight Saturday's visitors will miss: the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Contributing: Associated Press