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D.C. is Calm as War Looms

By Craig von Buseck Producer
March 19, 2003

CBN.comWASHINGTON, D.C. -- As President Bush prepares the nation for war, people in Washington, D.C. live a life of contrasting realities. On the street in front of the House and Senate office buildings soldiers in flack jackets and helmets stand guard with machine guns, while all around them people stream in and out, going about their daily routine. In front of the Capitol Building a missile battery stands ready to shoot down anything approaching from the sky. Inside it is business as usual for members of the House and Senate, and for their staff members.

"They say we can always rebuild the Capitol," one Senate staffer told me somewhat nonchalantly as we walked in the marble-clad hallway just outside the Senate chamber. "But, if that happened we would lose all this," she said, motioning her hand to the ornate woodwork and the marble busts of great Americans who served their country in this magnificent building.

"Are you thinking about the war?" I asked.

"We're all busy trying to get our legislation onto the floor before war breaks out," she responded. "After that, we don't know how long it will be before the regular business of the Senate can proceed as normal."

"Are you concerned about a terror attack?"

"I don't usually have time to worry about it," she replied. "But security is so loose it wouldn't take much for terrorists to carry out an attack. It reminds me of the scene in 'A Fish Called Wanda' where Kevin Kline lays his gun on the scanner, walks through the metal detector, and then picks it up on the other end of the conveyor belt, and no one says a thing to him."

"It wasn't long ago that a couple of idiots strapped fake bombs to themselves and got into the Capitol undetected. Then in the middle of a large crowd of people they threw off their jackets and started dancing around, shouting anti-American slogans. Tourists were laughing and taking pictures. It was bizarre"

Capitol Hill SecurityI was somewhat unnerved by her comments, and by the lack of security that I experienced as I entered the building earlier that day. I was in Washington D.C. with a friend who invited me to attend some meetings on Capitol Hill. As we approached the security desk my friend noticed that she had forgotten her I.D. Our names were supposed to be at the desk, with a note saying that we were scheduled for meetings in the building. My friend's name was on the note, but mine was not. When they asked for I.D. I showed them mine, and my friend said she had left hers at home. Even though my name was not on the note, and my friend didn't have any I.D. they waived us on into the building.

All this was taking place the day after President Bush gave Saddam Hussein a final 48-hour notice of war, and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the terror threat level from "code yellow" -- or "elevated risk" -- to "orange," or "high risk." Throughout the Capitol high visibility security was stepped up. The U.S. Secret Service widened perimeters around the White House, the U.S. Coast Guard stepped up patrols on the Potomac River and the Metropolitan Police Department activated its Joint Operations Command Center in response to a heightened terrorism alert. U.S. Park Police officers were placed on duty around national monuments, metro and federal officers began carrying machine guns, and the visibility of SWAT teams was increased. At area airports officials began searching vehicles, and called on residents to be aware of suspicious activity.

"We have to be vigilant, but we can't panic," said D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams. "We have to have an open city, but we have to have a safe city. We can do both."

As I observed the activity of the day I saw no panic whatsoever. It was as if nothing had changed for Washingtonians. I asked my friend, a political activist, why she thought that was the case.

"It's like the boy who cried wolf," she replied. "People have a hard time living their lives at a constant state of alert. We become de-sensitized to it."

My friend lives only blocks away from the Capitol Building, and so she was very aware of the heightened threat of terrorism in the days after September 11. "Right after 9/11, every time they uncovered another threat I fled the town. But after awhile most people began tuning out the alerts."

But she hasn't completely tuned out the threat. "I'm trying to decide whether to purchase the house that I'm renting right now. I'm wondering what would happen to my property if they set off some sort of dirty bomb this close to the Capitol. It is actually one of the factors I'm considering in my decision-making process."

After 9/11 she organized an evacuation plan in the event of a major attack. She's grateful that she hasn't had to enact her plan. "My roommate and I have decided that if there is an attack, and it's during the day, we have a place where we're going to go, and a place where we'll meet. She works in a Cabinet Member's office, and they have been backing up files and putting things in protective storage in case of an attack. They have gone through drills as to how they will handle their classified information -- and they have had evacuation drills as well. So there are plans going on across the city."

Despite concerns over the possibility of terrorism with the start of the war in Iraq, she is confident of the leadership in the White House.

White House Security"People are recognizing that our government is doing a good job. There haven't been any more attacks since 9/11. For having never experienced this kind of technology, and this kind of warfare, I think our president is doing an incredible job. You read articles about him, and he says himself that it is because of divine revelation. People can criticize him for that, but I praise God that we have a believer in office at this critical moment."

"I don't know of anyone who is stressing about terrorism," said a reporter for a national television network as we spoke over lunch at a trendy Thai restaurant. "It's just not the topic of conversation." Toward the end of the conversation she casually added, "By the way, did you hear about the guy who drove the tractor trailer into the pond near the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial? They say he may have a bomb in the truck."

As we drove from lunch to our next meeting my political activist friend steered me away from the traffic jam that had resulted from the police standoff with this potential terrorist -- a North Carolina tobacco farmer protesting farm policy.

"We believe the person's dangerous," Park Police spokesman Sgt. Scott Fear told the Washington Times. "We would love to have him in our custody. ... We're being very patient. Public safety and loss of life is our main concern."

The standoff highlighted the question of how law enforcement would handle a terrorist attempting a serious biological or chemical attack.

My friend told me of the absolute panic and resulting congestion caused by the attack on the Pentagon on 9/11. "Our offices were only a few blocks away from the Capitol. My assistant was in the office and heard sirens like you would have heard in an old air raid drill. She didn't know what was going on. The phones went dead. The security alarm went off, and she got scared. She went outside to see what was happening, and there were just masses of people streaming out of buildings and flooding the streets. Police cars were rushing through the crowds."

"At that same moment, another friend was in a meeting at the Capitol, seated next to former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta. At one moment Panetta leaned over to him and said, 'I just got a call that a plane is headed toward the Capitol and we have 20 minutes to evacuate.' So he ran out, of course, and drove to my house."

"The plane that hit the Pentagon flew directly over my house, and I didn't know what was going on. A few minutes later my friend called and said, 'We're under attack, stay put, I'm coming to get you.' In the meantime, I looked out my window and saw all these people running down my street because I'm so close to the Senate office buildings. So people in suits were running down my street, while other people who were late for work didn't know what was going on."

"I was crying. I was upset. I didn't know what to do. I called my sister, and she prayed for me. She is not one to say, 'God said this or that.' But as she was praying for me she said, 'Don't worry. I know that God promised me that you and your friends would be o.k.' And that just put a peace in my heart."

As I drove out of the city later that evening the radio news was alerting the public to steer clear of the Pentagon because police were investigating a truck that they feared contained explosives. At that moment I drove over the Potomac Bridge and right past the Pentagon. Looking over toward this bastion of military might I quietly prayed, "Lord, please protect them."

I paused for a moment, driving away from the city, then completed the prayer. "And Lord, please protect me."

Just another day in our nation's capitol.

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Craig von BuseckCraig von Buseck is the Programming Director for E-mail your comments to him.

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