Rallying 'Round the Flag

By David Von Drehle
Sunday, April 9, 2006

Late one winter afternoon, not long before he stepped down as chief of the U.S. Capitol Police, Terrance Gainer was discussing security in the age of catastrophic terrorism. Behind him, his office windows displayed a spectacular view: nearly 180 degrees of Washington skyline, anchored by a huge, incandescently white dome. To some people, the Capitol dome stands for power. To others, freedom. To the Americans who watched as the dome was built during the desperate years of the Civil War, its alabaster gleam represented the idea of the nation itself.

Gainer would see the dome and think: "Quite a target."

And the Mall, with its monuments, memorials, artifacts and treasures? "It's like a runway," Gainer observed. Macabre? Perhaps, but Gainer, like many others in Washington, was paid to think unpleasant thoughts, including one in which a terrorist steers a jet down the wide landing path of the Mall, descending over the Reflecting Pool, accelerating above the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian Castle on his right, the National Gallery on his left, to slam spectacularly into the dome.

The White House, with its low profile and wooded surroundings, is a much trickier objective, Gainer noted.

This was all said matter-of-factly. It's just the world we live in today. See plane, think missile; see landmark, think fireball; feel breeze, think anthrax. And so I found myself nodding agreeably as Gainer continued in this apocalyptic vein, comparing the relative threats posed by deadly germs in the air vents, a dirty bomb, a suicide bomber in a room full of VIPs. He spoke smilingly about the inevitable panic, the gridlocked roads, the trapped humans frantic to escape. Is evacuation even a good idea in most cases? Gainer asked rhetorically. After all, a basement makes a sturdy bunker against even a violent blast. On the other hand, if the basement fills with highly flammable jet fuel . . .

"And what if a bomb the size of the Hiroshima bomb was set off around here?" Gainer asked finally, then answered his own question. "Well, we'd all be dead, so we wouldn't have to worry about a mass evacuation."

For a brief moment, I imagined a blinding flash outside Gainer's windows, and a rush of superheated wind, and the windows bursting as the walls imploded. But just as quickly, the vision retreated to the grim corner of the brain where most Washingtonians endeavor to keep it. In place of the horror there was, once more, a fine view of the coppery winter dusk. The dome. A construction crane. Lights winking on. Another construction crane. The Washington Monument. Another construction crane.

And another construction crane.

And another.

Construction cranes occupied nearly every point of the compass, in the foreground and in the background, looming nearby, tiny on the horizon. Bombs and missiles aren't the only things that go boom. Economies do, too.

Thus, the yin and yang of life in Washington were balanced there amid the homey confines of Chief Gainer's office. Visions of disaster alongside hard evidence of good times. The fact is, since the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, life has been fat here in the cross hairs (apart from the occasional night sweat). The Washington area has enjoyed the best economy in the nation during the past four years -- by a mile. What doesn't kill us makes us richer.

Perhaps, if you live here, you have found yourself wondering whether you should stay. Maybe the thought crossed your mind the day the folks from Human Resources distributed plastic escape hoods, mini-flashlights and whistles to blow should you find yourself pinned under rubble. Or maybe it was the day your spouse came home with an armload of duct tape and plastic sheeting for your "safe room." Maybe it was when the guys in the mailroom started walking around in surgical masks, or when you attended that dinner party where your neighbors explained their strategy for evacuating via bicycle or canoe. But you stayed, and seemingly everyone else did, too. And many thousands more poured into the region, filling the subdivisions and condo blocks and office towers rising from Dulles to downtown, Leesburg to Largo, Dale City to Hyattsville.

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