Statue of Liberty gets her view back

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.

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