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Paul T. O’Connor: Do legislators fear terrorists or voters?

By Paul T. O’Connor

RALEIGH — On April 19, 1995, the day domestic extremists blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, news reporters were watching TV updates in the legislative press room.

What was already a glum day turned gloomier when I observed that a design flaw in the Legislative Building made it susceptible to a similarly catastrophic terrorist attack.

Twenty-two years later, despite several security upgrades and an expansion of the building’s security force, that flaw persists, and legislative officials are fully aware of it.

“Oh, I know,” Paul Coble, legislative services director, said with a gallows chuckle, noting that he, personally, would be in peril. Several long-time security officers and several veteran lobbyists said they had also thought about the flaw, and worried about it.

Security was on our minds that day after the House budget showed an appropriation of $325,000 to create a new security team for the legislature. Because the budget provision was short on details, speculation was rampant.

Coble noted that there’d been a discussion of security issues lately and that a number of changes were planned for coming months.

Martin Brock, legislative police chief, said an effort is already underway “to increase visual deterrence.” That is, to discourage troublemakers with a strong police presence.

Two new pieces of that visual deterrence are parked outside the building, he said. The legislative police force purchased a Dodge Charger and Dodge Tahoe, both used, for a few thousand dollars from the Highway Patrol, re-painted them, Coble said.

This summer, he said, the building’s police force, including a number of officers now working in civilian clothes, will don new uniforms, and that will also increase visual deterrence, he said.

Clearly, something more than used cars and new uniforms must be planned if $325,000 is involved. Coble isn’t saying, but coffee pot speculation is that metal detectors are on their way.

But metal detectors would create a huge problem. The Legislative Building is one of the busiest places in Raleigh.

Every day, thousands of people enter and leave its two major doorways, and many of them do so multiple times, heading to and from the Legislative Office Building.  Security checks at each doorway would create long lines that would totally disrupt legislative business.

The building’s design flaw would not be addressed by metal detectors, newly painted police vehicles or visual deterrence

There’s a legitimate question to be raised, therefore, in light of the way this legislature has acted over the last four sessions: What is their greater concern? Is it terrorism that is driving the security upgrades, or is it protest such as the health care demonstration that took place last Tuesday?

More uniformed officers and two aging vehicles aren’t going to stop some lunatic determined to strike at the heart of a state government. But they will discourage peaceful protest by Americans exercising their First Amendment right to petition their government for a redress of grievances.

Over the past six years, under the current leadership, the atmosphere in the building has changed dramatically, with the security presence greatly increased. One long-time officer, looking at the force assembled to deal with the 100 protesters last week remembered his early days on the job when he and another officer were about the only ones on duty at any given time.

Longtime visitors to the building also don’t remember big numbers of people being arrested for protesting inside the building, although the legislature has always drawn protesters.

So, as we worry about terrorist goons launching an attack on our safety, we should also be asking if power-hungry legislators are assaulting our basic freedoms.

Paul T. O’Connor has covered state government for 39 years.

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