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PROTECTING THE WHITE HOUSE

The election of President Bush had prompted some observers to hope that among the changes his administration would make would be the reopening of Pennsylvania Avenue. The section of the famous roadway that crosses the White House was closed to motor vehicles during the Clinton years in response to the threat of violence.

With the shooting outside of the White House on Wednesday, though, that possibility should be approached with extreme caution.

In truth -- as Wednesday's gunfire demonstrated -- closing the road has not eliminated the possibility of a single armed man opening fire. Other security precautions, including the smartly executed procedures of the Secret Service, kept Bush and other White House workers safe.

But as the tragedies in Oklahoma City, at African embassies and in Yemeni waters have shown, the symbols of American government are prime targets for terrorists, domestic and foreign. The White House, with all that it represents -- politically, militarily and psychologically -- has to be nearly irresistible to the fevered minds that plot such attacks.

The arguments of those who oppose the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue are not without merit. How we present ourselves says something about who we are, and that something should not depict a cowering people. And if there is any place a free society should be most free, it is at the seat of its government. We must be careful not to impose or retain undue restrictions.

The question is how to define undue. If adequate security can be provided at the White House while reopening Pennsylvania Avenue, then that should be done. But this week's attack by a single, disturbed individual with a gun should serve as a cautionary reminder of what can happen if the next individual is driving a truck loaded with explosives.

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