Restricted access on People's Wharf

There's a gulf between the courage to face real hazards and living with irrational insecurities

Posted: Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The tourist season is in full swing. On an afternoon when the sun is shining, downtown Juneau is nearly transformed into a pedestrian mall. Sidewalks are crowded with people moving from shop to shop. People linger around a dozen or more small wooden shacks considering whether to book a local tour.

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The atmosphere resonates with the freedom of movement and choices. That is, with the exception of the 10-foot buffer adjacent to a 780-foot-long cruise ship that rises 10 decks above the People's Wharf, casting more than a literal shadow over the small yellow barriers that restrict access alongside the towering ship.

The Orwellian image is not the only reminder of the uncomfortable irony of our time. Off the ship's bow, mooring lines reach south to secure the ship to bollards adjacent to the Alaska Commercial Fisherman's Memorial. The concrete wall's short graceful curve carries more than 100 names of people lost at sea, souls who sought to earn an honest living in Alaska's sometimes dangerous waters.

Commercial fishing remains one of the most hazardous occupations in the country. Thus the memorial also is a dedication to a way of life. Alaska has a rich heritage of people who have challenged the harsh elements of our northern climate and carved a reputation of spirited independence that still emanates across much of the state.

We tend to admire and respect those who engage in professions that are inherently risky. Most of us, though, ply our days amid comfort and relative security. Following the spectrum downward we find a wide gulf between the courage to face real hazards and living with insecurities spawned from irrational fears.

The yellow barriers in front of the cruise ships seem to belong to this latter category. The signs attached to some of them warn, "Restricted Area: Unauthorized presence within this area constitutes a breach of security." They are randomly and weakly bolted to the deck planks, and stand only 42 inches high, merely pretending to guard against intrusion. To even the most cautious mind, the stated purpose seems at odds with all possibility of effectiveness.

Such security measures beg to question the reality of the threats we're being guarded against. If the threats are genuine, perhaps the cruise ships shouldn't be welcome to moor at the wharf. Maybe they shouldn't even sail to Alaska, because it seems there isn't any serious protection for the few thousand people on board anywhere while en route along the Inside Passage. Or is the real message in today's security-obsessed culture that we need big government protecting us at all times?

It's a natural human tendency to seek security. But the wish for certainty also undermines the ability to fully experience life. The paradox is a constant question whenever we engage in the pursuit of our most passionate dreams and desires. Fear then might be the first test of our personal freedom. It may illicit an intelligent response to risks with overpowering odds. Or it can restrict our hopes to reach our individual potential.

But there's a difference in examining our fears and being directed to guard ourselves from the dangers others determine we should be aware of.

Sadly, there are places in the world where terrorism violently claims the lives of innocent people all too often. The yellow barriers wouldn't provide any protection in such places, and in Juneau they wouldn't either if the threat was real. Their presence on the wharf is a result of someone else deciding that we and our summer visitors need to be aware that our community is part of a world that is intolerably dangerous.

Such policing tactics are a tool for perception management, a means in which we empower others to encroach upon our true freedoms.

It's named the People's Wharf and it belongs to us, those still here and those whose lives were lost to honest dangers that still exist. How would the people we honor on the Fisherman's Memorial respond to the restriction of access to our wharf? Would they return the respect we give them? Or would they see the mockery of safety and security as a sign of weakness in this land of rugged individualism?

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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