On a recent visit to the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s premier federal center for medical research, I was reminded of how tight security has become in this country. As I drove into the institute, I was instructed to pull over into a special station, where my ID was checked, my car searched, and my license plate number copied down. At the front door of the main clinical building two guards stopped me and asked for my ID. Directly behind them, I encountered a table with three more guards who again asked for my ID and inquired which floor I would be visiting. Across from this table was an airport-style x-ray machine and metal detector, where another two guards patted me down, scanned all of my personal belongings, and, of course, checked my ID.

If the above system seems like overkill, its presence is made even more ridiculous by the fact that all of these measures can be easily circumvented. The D.C. metro runs under the automobile checkpoint, and using a side entrance will get you past all of the guards. Despite these limitations, post-Sept. 11 security will cost the NIH over $300 million per year. This figure represents such a sizable portion of the institute’s operating budget that NIH scientists will no longer be able to afford some of the basic materials they need to carry out their medical research.

The situation at the NIH is not unique. In fact, the procedures that have been instituted here pale in comparison to some of the steps being taken at higher profile offices and institutions throughout the nation. States will spend millions just to bring their homeland security profiles up to code, with California alone expected to spend over $500 million by the end of the year. While the government has promised to subsidize some of these costs, the majority of the money will have to be transferred from existing programs. Just as the NIH will no longer be able to completely fund the research for which it was designed, soon local government may be forced to sacrifice some of its community services in the name of security.

While no one will argue that there needs to be an emphasis on national safety in these turbulent times, the question that must be asked is: Does more security equal better security? If so, how much are we willing to sacrifice for this enhanced security? Additional guards and officers may make us feel safer, but they are beginning to cost us in more ways than we might imagine. To address this problem, we must focus on how to make security smarter, not bigger.

As it stands, the current government security effort is too broad in some respects and too narrow in others. John Ashcroft’s proposed color-coded alert system may result in a more informed public in the short term. However, people will soon become desensitized to it, as they did with the frequent announcements of impending terrorist threats that followed the September attacks. Additionally, there has been a strong emphasis on areas such as airline security, while other modes of transportation have been largely ignored.

In both cases, emphasis on “bigness” has left side doors open and aspects of our daily lives vulnerable to attack. A smart security effort must take these deficiencies into account while ensuring that funds and energy are still available for the social programs that define us as a nation.

As I walked around the NIH last week, I was struck by how sterile and quiet the campus seemed. Just last year, people from the community were free to utilize the institute’s grounds — they walked their dogs there and played with their children on the grass. Now, a fence surrounds the area and all external traffic has been shut out. The sense of community that once surrounded the NIH has disappeared — all in the name of safety.

If we give into the hysteria of national security without deliberation as to how its principles might best be applied, we risk building a fence around every activity we participate in. We risk closing our communities and sacrificing the ideals we cherish. And ultimately, we risk letting the terrorists win.

David Grimm is a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Genetics.