Soon, schools will start taking their traditional class trips to the State House, a rite that continues today in districts surprisingly far from the capital.

Visitors from around the country, and around the world, seek out state capitals, but schoolchildren are still special. When we pause from the infighting that has come to mark our state and national politics, we should all breathe a sigh of relief that at least a portion of Maine’s 21st century citizenry may someday come to see things differently.

Yet what do these young visitors witness the first moment they arrive? They must pass through metal detectors, installed nearly eight years ago by the Republican-controlled Legislative Council when the party held the majority from 2010-12.

The message is clear enough: There’s something slightly scary going on here and — as at airports around the world — we need to be on watch for suspicious characters and strange-looking packages.

Hardly anyone now disputes the need for airline checkpoints, however tedious they have become, but is the Maine State House really comparable?

The reasons given for installing the security barrier at the only public entrance were a little obscure. Some cited the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords; others referred to an incident in Waterville where a Republican legislator pulled a gun on a newspaper photographer and was arrested.

As a reason for the barrier, the Waterville confrontation seemed odd — under the densely printed five pages of rules the council adopted, legislators are exempt from screenings, as are accredited reporters, and lobbyists, who can get passes by paying a fee. Only the general public has to take off their belts and hand over their cellphones, keys and coins.

What was left unspoken was something I learned only much later — that one of the influential voices favoring screening was Gov. Paul LePage, who uneasily shared the State House with lawmakers for eight years, since his office was in a building where the Legislature has jurisdiction.

Democrats opposed the screening when it came to a vote in 2011. “These new scanning machines give a huge false sense of security,” said Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland, then assistant minority leader. “If someone wants to do something at the State House, those two machines are not going to stop them.”

Two years later, however, after Alfond — at that point Senate president — and the Democrats resumed the majority, they declined to discontinue the screenings even when a new Republican Senate leader, Roger Katz, proposed eliminating them as a cost-cutting measure. Seth Berry, the House majority leader, said, “We’ve heard from the chief of Capitol Police that the state houses generally are a very tempting target for symbolic purposes.” And the “symbolic” argument carried the day.

Trouble is, no one can remember an incident in the State House that’s been remotely violent. Voices are sometimes raised, and debate — especially during the endless 2017 and 2018 session — was often testy.

Yet about the only qualifying moment was when a troubled visitor — whose motives were never clear — knocked over the bust of Percival Baxter in the Hall of Flags.

It seems that the statue of the former governor, and founder of Maine’s premier wilderness park, was simply sitting on its pedestal, without support. It is now bolted to the floor and has a protective railing around it; that seems appropriate.

Metal detection screening, however, does not. With a new governor in the building, and a perceptible lightening of the often-grim atmosphere that long prevailed, isn’t it time for reconsideration?

There’s always the “better be safe than sorry” argument, but at some point we have to weigh the costs and benefits of measures we’ve taken. In the rest of the Capitol complex, including the cafeteria, the Cross Office Building where many legislators spend much of their time, and the Cultural Building housing the State Library, Archives and Museum, there are no screenings and no suggestion we need them.

One of the reasons many of us live in Maine is that we feel safe here. All the crime statistics — as well as neighborly instincts on display every day — suggest that, except for airports and courtrooms, where the results of many violent incidents are adjudicated — public places are remarkably safe.

If we’re committed to a welcoming atmosphere in what is justly called “the people’s house,” why should we need a pat-down or a pass to get in?

As a nation, we’ve just spent a great deal of time and effort considering whether a wall is really the answer to questions of migration across borders. Perhaps, as Mainers, we could take the small risk of taking down a wall that really shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 34 years. He is the author of “Rise, Decline and Renewal: The Democratic Party in Maine,” and welcomes comment at: [email protected]


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