Ordinary life has given way to dread – but defiance remains

Washington
Click to follow
The Independent US
This is a city that is living in fear of its life. Sometimes even now, even after the worst terrorist atrocity in modern history, of which it was a direct victim, you can pretend that nothing happened. The downtown takeway pizza parlours are doing their usual business. The leafy byways of upper north-west Washington are as inviting as ever

This is a city that is living in fear of its life. Sometimes even now, even after the worst terrorist atrocity in modern history, of which it was a direct victim, you can pretend that nothing happened. The downtown takeway pizza parlours are doing their usual business. The leafy byways of upper north-west Washington are as inviting as ever.

The Metro commute is pretty much as usual too, except for the size of the headlines on the front pages, which people scan in continuing disbelief. Unlike New York ,there are no gaping holes in the skyline.

But then, every few hours, normality gives way to dreadful reality. Take Thursday evening. A new panic as, for reasons unknown, they temporarily closed every street for three blocks around the White House. Ambulances and police cars, sirens blaring, barged their way through the traffic. Helicopters whirred overhead.

What had happened? Another attack? Another rogue plane – maybe heading for the White House, to make up for that notable omission from Tuesday's rollcall of targets? But, of course, nobody knew. When I returned to the office this morning, everything was functioning normally. "What was all that about?" I asked a woman in the lift. "I don't know," she replied, "but bet your life it'll get worse."

This is early September, when the city's social calendar should be hottting up. Instead, there's not a party around. Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard, was in town at the start of the week, to see everyone from the President down. On Sunday evening, there was a barbecue at the embassy attended by a third of the Bush Cabinet. Some 36 hours later, the schedule had been torn up and Mr Howard was being flown by US military jet to Honolulu.

But there is defiance too. An orange leaflet was shoved through our letter box on Wednesday: THIS MEETING HAS NOT BEEN CANCELLED, it declared, announcing that our local Ward Four member on the DC City Council would be attending a neighbourhood meeting last night to talk about his plans to make Washington a safer place.

Still, fear is supplanting reason. No security official, no policeman, wants to be the person who turns a blind eye to a minor oddity, and then brings about another tragedy. So they play it by the book, and then some.

It's frustrating – and not just if you're an ordinary Joe stuck in a traffic jam for a couple hours. "We're not going to get a repeat of what happened on Tuesday," said Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the most powerful people in Washington, but who was unceremoniously herded out of the Capitol building on Thursday evening.

"Frankly, I was embarrassed to walk out of there," Mr Biden said. "There wasn't even a tangible threat, just the word there had been a threat. But that's the way it is. Everybody's on tenterhooks."

Comments